Mississippi Department of Child Protective Services in Jackson. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

Mississippi’s foster care agency is failing to prevent abuse and neglect of children in state custody despite its commitments to do so as part of a long-running federal lawsuit, documents obtained by Mississippi Today show. 

And Gov. Tate Reeves, who oversees the agency and has recently vowed to make the state safer for children, has downplayed the agency’s problems and failed to propose concrete solutions.

A Mississippi toddler named Olivia Y. weighed only 22 pounds when she entered state custody in 2003. Though she was obviously malnourished, she was not given a medical exam. Over the next three months, she was shuffled across five different foster homes.

The lawsuit that bears her name was filed in 2004, when she was 3-and-a-half years old, on behalf of the thousands of children in the state foster care system. The state first agreed to a settlement requiring it to make systemic reforms in 2008, but has never fully complied with the terms of that and later settlement agreements.

An independent monitor evaluated the department’s progress toward meeting its commitments in reports released in 2020 and 2021 that were never publicized. The reports documented major systemic failures and gut-wrenching stories. About 2% of all children in department custody were subjected to abuse or neglect by their caregivers in 2020, the monitor found – and advocates believe many more incidents of abuse are never reported. 

The department acknowledged in June 2021 that it was not capable of achieving its targets and instead agreed to a “rebuilding period.” It is working toward reaching a smaller number of less stringent standards in areas such as worker caseloads and child safety by early 2023. The next monitoring report will not be filed until April 2023. 

Yet Reeves has already determined the department is up to par. 

In a statement to Mississippi Today, Reeves spokeswoman Shelby Wilcher said the most recent monitoring report, which evaluated the department’s work in calendar year 2020, does not reflect its “current efficacy.”

“Governor Reeves believes current child protection services in Mississippi meet and exceed constitutional standards,” she said. 

It’s not clear what he meant by “constitutional standards.”

Marcia Robinson Lowry, the lead plaintiffs’ attorney in the federal case against the state, has met regularly with CPS Commissioner Andrea Sanders, whom Reeves appointed, during the last two years. Lowry disagrees with Reeves’ claim.

“That’s appalling,” Lowry said of Reeves’ statement. “I don’t know what he means by that. I hope that we are all paying attention to the wellbeing of Mississippi’s children, both the advocates and the governor, because the reports that the monitor has issued show that there are big, big problems in the Mississippi system. And they need to be addressed. And they haven’t been. So I’m sort of appalled at that.”

Lowry said she believes Sanders has been making strong efforts to achieve the department’s rebuilding period targets, but it’s still unclear whether they will succeed. Lowry said the details of her meetings with Sanders are confidential.

The department told Mississippi Today it cannot comment on the ongoing litigation. 

Wilcher did not respond to follow-up questions about how Reeves reached his conclusion and whether he has seen more recent data showing rates of abuse and neglect. 

Among the problems documented in the most recent reports:

  • High rates of abuse and neglect of children in department custody. In 2019, 87 kids were abused or neglected. In 2020, the figure was 117, nearly six times the agreed-upon rate. During the rebuilding period, the independent monitor is conducting an analysis to determine why these cases occurred.
  • Four teenagers in department custody ran away from the group home where they were living and became involved in sex trafficking in 2019. When the department investigated, one of the girls who had run away reported that they “were not really being supervised.” But the CPS investigator never interviewed facility staff to find out whether that might have played a role in their escape – even though they also knew that incidents of kids running away from the facility had triggered at least 28 previous investigations. By the time the investigation wrapped up, one of the four teenagers was still missing.
  • The monitor found: “A foster child, age ten, and adoptive child, age 11, were left home to care for a foster child, age one. He was not changed regularly and had diaper rash. The older children changed his diaper, gave him a bath, and cleaned him with baby wipes because he was always filthy. MDCPS substantiated physical neglect of the one-year-old, but neglect was unsubstantiated for the other two children, who were caregivers for him. In interviews, the children also alleged that the foster mother called them names, cursed at them, ‘whooped’’ them with belts, shoes, and other objects, and smoked around them in the home and the car. As a result of this investigation, the 10-year-old was removed from the home. However, the one-year-old remained in the home for two months, and the 11- year-old adopted child and an older adopted youth still remain in the home.”
  • The department placed a 17-year-old girl in a motel for a month and a half and hired a rotating group of sitters from a sitter service to watch her. It conducted two maltreatment investigations. In the first, “it was alleged that the child had taken a beer from a man staying at the motel, that she had ‘found’ $400 and split it with one of the sitters, and that she was sending inappropriate pictures of herself through social media.” The department removed her phone and did not substantiate allegations of physical neglect.  It then removed her from the motel and placed her in a group home. The child then reported that while she was in the motel, one of the sitters regularly took her to their home, where “she had sexual relations with the sitter’s 47-year-old uncle ‘three to four times weekly’ and that it was consensual.” The department found that physical neglect and sexual abuse had occurred, and the investigator noted that the report was forwarded to local police but that they could not bring charges because Mississippi’s age of consent is 16. “However, the investigating worker also noted that if an exchange occurred for sex, the age of consent is then 18 years of age. It appears the Department did not follow up on this.”
  • “A 19-year-old was placed and re-placed in a hotel repeatedly, including three times after being hospitalized for ingesting harmful objects such as a razor, broken glass, and a large quantity of pills, and once after running away from the hotel and being returned there by the police.”
  • Higher-than-allowable worker caseloads. The department is supposed to ensure 90% of all caseworkers have a caseload that meets standards allowing them to provide adequate care and oversight. In 2019 and 2020, this figure ranged from 48% to 68%. 
  • The department failed to consistently provide older teens with assistance planning for independent life after leaving state custody, including help lining up housing, even when they specifically asked for it. In the case of one Mississippian who left state custody on their 21st birthday, “Case narrative notes documented the youth’s desire for an apartment for several months prior to emancipation. There was no documentation that the youth ever received assistance from MDCPS in finding housing.”

At a press event on Wednesday where the Governor and First Lady announced the theme of this year’s “Christmas at the Mansion,” Mississippi Today attempted to ask Reeves in person about how he reached his conclusion that MDCPS is meeting and exceeding “constitutional standards” to protect the kids in its care. 

“I’m not going to take any questions on that today,” he said. “I’m going to be out and about tomorrow. We’ll talk politics at the appropriate time.”

(This year’s theme is “Mississippi Hometown Christmas.”)

In 2020, the department met only 32 of 123 targets. It failed to meet 75, and the monitor couldn’t evaluate the remaining areas because of data issues.

In 2019, the department met 39 of 126 commitments. It did not meet 54 areas and failed to provide data or complete data for 32. 

In the wake of the overturning of Roe v. Wade and the end of nearly all abortion in Mississippi, Reeves has touted a “new pro-life agenda.” But his proposals for the state’s foster care system so far have largely amounted to a pledge to “strengthen adoption services.” 

Earlier this year, the Legislature approved nearly $60 million in federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act for the department, which will in part be used to hire about 200 new employees to work through a “backlog” of cases. 

A spokesperson for the department did not answer questions regarding plans for the ARPA spending, saying the person best equipped to answer them is out of the office this week. Lawmakers did not respond to requests for comment or did not recall the specifics of the department’s plans for its ARPA funding.

When Mississippi Today asked Reeves’ office for information about his work on foster care issues, they pointed to a press conference he held in April where they said the department was discussed “in detail.” During the press conference, he announced an expanded “public-private partnership” with a nonprofit program called Wendy’s Wonderful Kids to help find adoptive homes for special needs children and older kids in foster care. With a $1.7 million donation from the Dave Thomas Foundation, the program will expand from one recruiter in the state to 10.

At the same event, Reeves signed into law a bill that will provide college scholarships for young people who spent at least part of their teenage years in foster care. Thirty-eight states already had such programs. 

But the problems documented in the monitoring reports go far beyond barriers to adoption and college access. 

According to the reports, adoption is the long-term goal for 39% of kids in state custody; only 22% who left department care in 2020 were adopted. 

For half of kids in state custody, the long-term goal is reunification with their families. Caseworkers are supposed to meet monthly with the families of kids in that category to discuss progress and the child’s well-being. But the monitors found this happened less than half of the time. 

When CPS Commissioner Andrea Sanders presented her request for ARPA funding to legislators in December, she noted that a very small amount of resources can sometimes allow a child to avoid state custody altogether.

“We do want to start with where the child is and look for ways that we might prevent removal of that child,” she said. “What would it take to get a child to stay in their home safely? Sometimes it’s just a bed. Sometimes it’s a safe place to sleep. Sometimes it’s a mitigation of a heating system in the house that’s unsafe for the child to be around.”

The number of children in state custody has fallen 33% since 2017, from 5,872 to 3,888 in June 2022, according to data the department shared with Mississippi Today. The monitoring report showed that at the end of 2020, there were 3,738 kids in department custody.

The reports also document the department’s progress in several areas, including:

  • The department licensed 357 new non-relative foster homes in 2020, exceeding the target of 351. “This is a significant accomplishment made during the COVID-19 pandemic, which had a significant impact on child welfare operations throughout the nation,” the report noted.
  • The department ran a system of post-adoption services statewide, providing adoptive families access to counseling, mental health treatment and crisis intervention, peer support and respite services. 
  • At least 95% of children in custody were placed in the least restrictive setting (i.e., the one most similar to a family environment) that met their needs. 
  • The department’s caseworkers met educational qualifications and received adequate training. 

Mississippi advocates for children have witnessed other problems with the system beyond those discussed in the reports. 

Polly Tribble leads Disability Rights Mississippi, the nonprofit advocacy organization with statutory authority to advocate for Mississippians with disabilities. In the last year, she said, her organization has contacted MDCPS roughly 10 times because a foster child – generally with a psychiatric diagnosis of some kind – has been languishing in an inpatient residential facility long past when they should be released. 

“A few of them have been appropriately placed in a foster home or a therapeutic foster home, but more times than not they’re just transferred to another facility, or left,” she said. “… And of course the facility’s not going to turn them away.”

Tribble said kids can spend years in such facilities. 

Joy Hogge, executive director of the nonprofit Families as Allies, which advocates for children with behavioral health challenges and their caregivers, said one of the biggest problems facing the foster care system in Mississippi is a deeply ingrained sense that people who lose custody of their kids don’t really deserve to be parents. 

“There’s a lot of prejudice against the families, and assumptions made about them,” she said. 

Hogge said that when reunification is possible – as it is in at least half of cases, according to the monitoring reports – it’s important to support children in seeing their families and siblings, and in helping biological families get what they need. 

“There’s a philosophy that these are bad parents, we need to take these children from them,” she said. “It’s the same thing you’re seeing now: ‘We need to make adoption really easy.’”

Read the monitoring report completed in 2021:

Read the monitoring report completed in 2020:

Read the June 2021 order describing the rebuilding period:

Anna Wolfe contributed reporting.

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Isabelle, an Atlanta native, covers health as part of Mississippi Today’s community health team. Prior to joining Mississippi Today, she was a reporter for the Biloxi Sun Herald and a Report for America corps member.