Gov. Tate Reeves awarded $3 million to a nonprofit that created technology to assist social workers at the Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services in finding extended family members of children in foster care. 

It may also help the state come into compliance with the judge’s order in Olivia Y., a nearly two-decade old lawsuit over the embattled foster care system that the department is still struggling to resolve.

Ohio recently became the first state to announce it will use the family mapping technology Family Connections, which its creators say “looks like Facebook on the front end and works like on the back end.” Reeves is using a portion of his federal emergency education relief funds for Mississippi’s project with the group.

For Jessica Stern, co-founder and chief operating officer of the organization, the work is personal. After the death of her mother, she and her seven siblings were split up across three different towns. She developed post-traumatic stress disorder, as many children in the system do, and struggled in school.

“I would sit there with my head on my desk,” she remembers. Now as an adult, she realizes growing up with all of her siblings and having consistency and care at home would have made all the difference, she said.

That’s why Stern and Jennifer Jacobs, a nuclear scientist and a former White House fellow, founded the nonprofit in 2017. The goal is not to make money, they say, though they do draw salaries from the work.

Stern said most child welfare agencies she’s interacted with are using systems that are at least 35 years old. The system is “overwhelmed and outdated,” she said.

In Mississippi, child welfare workers use old-school methods to locate family members, CPS spokesperson Shannon Warnock said.

“Presently our workers utilize time and labor intensive methods of investigation including record and registration checks, sending correspondence to previously known addresses and utilizing social media sources,” she said.

Connect Our Kids’ Family Connections tool, which is free, searches public records and social media platforms to build out a family tree for children. The goal is to create a streamlined, easy-to-use tool to track down relatives, which federal law requires social workers to do when a child first enters foster care.

Studies have shown children placed with family remembers remain in one home longer, and caregivers report fewer behavioral and developmental problems, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.  

In Mississippi, where 3,837 children are currently in foster care, the group will use the $3 million to develop additional versions of the tool. They will also train social workers, court appointed special advocate volunteers and other child welfare workers on how to use their tools in addition to creating “trauma-informed video content” for children ages 14 to 24, also known as “transition age youth.” 

“Connect Our Kids will allow MDCPS to leverage technology in a consistent, consolidated manner that will permit our staff to minimize the trauma associated with removal by locating relatives, neighbors, or other fictive kin that can provide safe, stable placement for foster children,” said Kimberly Gore, general counsel for the Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services. “The search tool itself is free, but the (federal funding) will provide intensive training to our staff and technical support to integrate the search engine with our existing technology.”

Marcia Lowry, director of national advocacy organization A Better Childhood, which sued the state on behalf of children who were abused, questioned the reasoning behind the program.

“I would be very interested in how this nonprofit is going to do this, and whether it can actually deliver,” Lowry said Monday. “The data in the system is so bad, and so unreliable, that I would be surprised.  The problem is not just in finding relatives but equally importantly how MDCPS checks them out. It has not had the capacity to do that and probably still doesn’t.”

Hiring and retaining enough caseworkers to reduce caseloads — the number of foster care children monitored by each caseworker — is the most critical element of the ongoing court settlement under Olivia Y. In the 2004 lawsuit, A Better Childhood argues Mississippi has failed to protect the kids in its care or provide necessary services.

“You cannot do anything else if you don’t have enough caseworkers,” Lowry said. “You can’t get assessments done on time. You can’t then approve foster parents. You can’t provide services to families so that they can take their children back home. You can’t do anything really, adequately, unless you have people. You have to have human beings who are both trained and who will stay on the job for at least several years, who then can provide the services to kids and families, but that’s not what the system has. It doesn’t and it never has.”

Mississippi has never met its caseload requirements under the settlement. Most recently, Lowry said, just 54% of caseworkers maintained adequate caseloads. CPS asked the Legislature for $32 million in federal COVID-19 funding to pay for salaries for 100 additional case workers, 20 local social workers and 82 case aides.

Reporter Anna Wolfe contributed to this report.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story said Stern and CEO Jennifer Jacobs do not draw a salary for their work at Connect Our Kids. They did not draw a salary up to 2019, the most recent year for which tax documents are available, but in recent years they have been paid for their work.

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Kate Royals is a Jackson native and returned to Mississippi Today as the lead education reporter after serving in the same capacity from 2016 to 2018. Prior to that, she was a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger covering education and state government. She won awards for her investigative work, including stories about the state’s campaign finance laws and prison system. She was a news producer at MassLive in Springfield, Mass., after graduating from Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communications with a master’s degree in communications.