The news that Mississippi was revamping its foster care system had reached countless officials, churches and charities across the state before Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Dawn Beam realized: The plan was never going to take root.

It was September of 2018, just weeks after Beam and then-First Lady Deborah Bryant launched the Family First Initiative with a splash. They named the project after federal legislation that could have provided the state an unprecedented boost of funding to help poor families — a law the state had just chosen not to implement.

The federal Family First Prevention Services Act, bipartisan reforms passed by Congress that year, was meant to encourage states to use a proactive approach to dealing with child neglect, which is the cause of more than 3-in-5 family separations and is often the product of poverty. 

The federal government would pump new foster care dollars, or title IV-E funding, into states to use on stabilizing services for biological families, as opposed to on traditional orphanages or group homes.

By mid-2018, when the initiative launched, Mississippi had already begun rapidly reducing the number of children in its custody, which was bloated due to the drug epidemic, by enforcing new standards for separation at the courts. The Family First Initiative, heavily promoted by two now-embattled welfare officials John Davis and Nancy New, would go beyond that, promising more than a change in philosophy.

“We’re going to have the greatest support we’ve ever seen from Washington, D.C., to the Capitol in Jackson,” then-Gov. Phil Bryant said at the July 2018 Family First Summit announcing the state’s new direction in foster care. “We’re going to have the rest of the nation looking at Mississippi and saying, ‘If they can do it there, you can do it anywhere, and they’re doing it better than anyone else.’”

The claim was widely repeated. “State to Be National Model for Keeping Families Together,” reads one Mississippi Public Broadcasting headline at the time.

But the state never submitted such a plan to the federal government, Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services confirmed to Mississippi Today. At the same time, millions of other federal funds the state could have used to serve this mission instead went to the pet projects of politicians or celebrity athletes and enriched their friends and family.

To this day, Mississippi has not participated or pulled down the Family First federal funding. 

Instead, the state continues to use funding from the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program — known as “welfare” and the subject of a massive ongoing state and federal investigation — to plug holes at the state’s notoriously underfunded foster care agency.

There’s no data to show how the state met the needs of poor families in order to prevent family separations under this initiative or how the state carries out this mission today. 

Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Dawn Beam describes her child welfare initiative, Family First, in a 2018 video. Credit: Courtesy Family First Initiative YouTube

When Beam learned that Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services, a department under the governor’s office, chose to delay the Family First plan, she sent Bryant a letter.

“You and I both represented to the public at the Family First Summit on July 30, 2018 that Mississippi is going to be a model for putting families first and embracing the Act. Certainly, the Executive Branch of government makes the decisions regarding implementation and timing; however, I have put the credibility of the Court on the line by repeating that Mississippi is embracing the Act all over our State,” she wrote on Sept. 17, 2018. “…this ‘delay in implementation’ is not embracing a new day in Mississippi.”

Beam is an outspoken child welfare advocate who had cleaned up a caseworker backlog in her home county before Bryant appointed her to the Supreme Court in late 2015. She described the governor’s reaction to her letter in one word: “Furious!”

Bryant held a meeting with his judicial appointee.

“He yelled at me in a meeting with Chief Justice Waller and Judge John Hudson present,” Beam told Mississippi Today by text, speaking in an individual capacity and not as a representative of the Supreme Court. “He said, ‘Don’t you know that all letters to my office are subject to a document request.’ I tell the truth and was protecting my own integrity and that of the court so I made no apology.”

That was the moment Beam said she realized the governor’s office was not going to follow through with its commitment. In an April 2022 interview with Mississippi Today, Bryant did not seem to know much about Family First or why his administration rejected the act even though he publicly supported it.

“I cannot imagine they would not have worked diligently to try to get those funds,” Bryant said. “… I don’t know if there were something within that act that we later found out was offensive.”

Former Gov. Phil Bryant speaks at the 2018 Family First Summit, where he suggested Mississippi would be a national model for implementing the federal Family First Prevention Services Act. “No longer will Mississippi allow our children to live in poverty,” the video caption reads. Credit: Courtesy Family First Initiative YouTube

Bryant’s appointed CPS commissioner at the time, former Justice Jess Dickinson, argued in a 2018 letter against immediately implementing the act, which would have provided the state unlimited dollar-for-dollar matching funds to help families in poverty. Since the agency was already choosing to use federal welfare funds from the Mississippi Department of Human Services to supplement its paltry legislative appropriation, Dickinson said the agency wouldn’t have seen a net financial benefit from the Family First Act. He also had concerns over how pulling down that funding for preventative services would jeopardize the state’s existing federal funding for group homes — most of which wouldn’t qualify under new requirements in the act.

The act forced states to shift financial focus away from group homes and to preventative services, since the point of the federal program was to keep kids with their families and reduce the number of children in orphanages. Dickinson, who argued the state was already achieving this goal, recommended delaying Mississippi’s start date from October 2019 to October 2021, the latest date states were given to comply with the act.

Without structural buy-in, Beam and Deborah Bryant’s initiative did more than fall flat for families in need. 

It also helped provide a guise for the misspending of tens of millions of federal grant funds from the Mississippi Department of Human Services, a distinct yet closely related agency to CPS.

The Family First Initiative, which fell under the Mississippi Commission on Children’s Justice created by the Mississippi Supreme Court in 2006, emphasized how it coordinated its efforts despite “virtually no funding.”

But the similarly named Families First for Mississippi, the now disgraced government program run by two private nonprofits, was supposed to serve as the resource arm of the initiative and had as much as $40 million a year in flexible welfare funds from DHS at its disposal. 

A video promoting the Family First Initiative, the unfunded judicial project, highlights the story of a mother named Sherniqua Thedford, who was able to transform her life because of help she received from the state — not from the new initiative but from a DHS case worker within the traditional TANF program.

Then the video cuts to Nancy New, founder of one of the nonprofits running Families First, Mississippi Community Education Center, to which the state was increasingly outsourcing the TANF program.

“It is a true compassionate service that we are offering,” New said, “and we want them to walk into an environment now that they’re not intimidated and I think that’s what they’re seeing through Families First. And it’s already happening. We’re seeing the connecting the dots. That’s what we’re doing so the people of Mississippi can become stronger.”

Founder of Mississippi Community Education Center Nancy New, who has pleaded guilty to fraud, bribery and racketeering, speaks in a 2018 video promoting the Family First Initiative. She was joined by Christi Webb, director of the Family Resource Center of North Mississippi, who partnered on the initiative. Credit: Courtesy Family First Initiative YouTube

The overall idea was that poverty is a community problem that can be solved by providing resources — training, child care and tangible items like beds and refrigerators — to parents, instead of pulling children from their homes.

Instead, New’s nonprofit was spending millions on vague contracts for motivational speaking or outreach from famous athletes and their friends, expensive vehicles, investments in a pharmaceutical startup and construction of a volleyball stadium, to name a few. New and her son Zach New pleaded guilty in April to several charges including bribery, fraud and racketeering related to the welfare grants. In a separate civil lawsuit, Nancy New says former Gov. Phil Bryant was just as responsible for the misspending and even directed some of the questionable purchases. Bryant denied this assertion.

Forensic auditors determined at least $77 million was improperly spent during the last four years of Bryant’s administration.

Thedford said Family First organizers told her she was being tapped as a spokesperson for the initiative, but after the luncheon at the Westin Hotel during the 2018 summit, “it was absolutely nothing.”

“They were supposed to get back with me and then all of a sudden I heard the money disappeared,” Thedford said. “I was hearing through the grapevine, ‘We don’t have the funding for it.’ That’s how I heard it at first. But then I heard somebody stole the funds.”

Through the TANF program years ago, Thedford received cash assistance that she said “helped me stay afloat” while her case worker helped her find a job. Thedford said without that assistance, she’d likely still be living in public housing where she started. Today, she’s a branch manager at a bank, solidifying her place in the middle class.

Currently, this program serves about 222 adults in Mississippi.

“For people to just take that away from so many people like me, that’s disturbing. That actually makes you sick to your stomach,” Thedford said. “… The one person that helped me that could have created thousands of people to help thousands of me, for that to be taken away, that is sickening.”

Beam shared a similar sentiment.

“I can’t understand anybody in the state who has a moral bone, when they know that we’re the poorest state in the union, that we have families that are suffering, why they wouldn’t just get up and want to work,” Beam said of social service providers in Mississippi.

The justice spotted trouble early on. 

On Sept. 10, 2018, Beam emailed Nancy New after attending a steering meeting in one of the counties selected to pilot the Family First Initiative. One of the only visible functions of the initiative were the community meetings they held across the state where family court officials, charities, churches and other stakeholders could discuss the needs in their area.

“I was extremely embarrassed tonight at the meeting by the lack of presence in Pearl River County of Families First Services,” Beam wrote. “Although you had two people there the young lady from Harrison County kept talking about all of these services that Families First provides and coalition in that area but no one in Pearl River County Leadership including judges that work every day in it has seen anyone.”

“I was ready to go under the table!!!!!!!!!” Beam added.

Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Dawn Beam (middle), Mississippi Department of Human Services director John Davis (right) and MDHS client Sherniqua Thedford present at an event announcing the Family First Initiative in 2018. Credit: Courtesy of the Mississippi Supreme Court

Both Nancy New and Mississippi Department of Human Services Director John Davis responded to Beam, explaining that they were still working to expand Families First to all areas of the state. In his response, Davis appealed to Beam’s religious bent. Beam is the daughter of former Mississippi Baptist Convention president and preacher Gene Henderson and sister to Pinelake Baptist Church pastor Chip Henderson.

“My book tells me that the author of confusion is not someone we serve…better still we serve the problem solver,” Davis wrote to Beam.

Davis shared his reply with Ted “Teddy” DiBiase Jr., a retired WWE wrestler who appeared to be an executive employee of MDHS and sat on Family First Initiative’s advisory council – though he was being paid by New’s nonprofit. He received over $3 million. DiBiase starred in one of the dramatic video advertisements that marketing firm Cirlot Agency was paid hundreds of thousands of welfare dollars to produce.

“Praaaaaiiiiissssee Jesus Wow…” DiBiase responded to Davis’ email, “never in my life have I ever heard so much said without saying much at all. Well put sir.”

The success of both the judicial initiative and the welfare program, multiple sources told Mississippi Today, relied on a sophisticated resource referral and tracking computer system, which would connect families to the services that met their needs and allow the state to follow up with clients and measure outcomes. 

Two days after Beam and Bryant’s heated meeting, Davis told Gov. Bryant in a letter that the welfare department and Families First for Mississippi would have to budget $5 million in TANF funds to develop this system on behalf of the court.

The system could have revolutionized the state’s public safety net, sources say. But the investment – which was the same amount New paid to build a volleyball stadium at University of Southern Mississippi for Brett Favre – never came.

“That (referral tracking system) did not materialize and that’s the most heartbreaking thing,” Beam told Mississippi Today.

The prospective budget Davis sent Bryant also included $600,000 to the Cirlot Agency for marketing and branding, $200,000 annually for each new Families First center in the pilot counties and $20,000 per year for salaries assigned to Justice Beam.

In the public record, Mississippi Today found no written response to this letter.

Beam told Mississippi Today she had never seen this budget breakdown. And while the justice employed two people under the court to run the Family First Initiative, Beam said she never received funding from MDHS to pay her staffers’ salaries.

Davis also wrote that Families First for Mississippi was providing other services to aid the initiative and that each service “has associated costs.”

“We very much appreciate the courts (sic) involvement and need it to be successful in reaching all the families and children who need these services,” Davis wrote. “Currently the policy is being directed by the Executive Branch. However, if the Supreme Courts initiative remains on the course it has chosen, there could be decisions which cross the Judicial and Executive Branch lines.”

One reason it appears the state chose to use TANF funding instead of pulling down new foster care funding, is that Family First Act funding requires a new state match, whereas using TANF did not.

“On the one hand, there isn’t a financial incentive to opt into this paradigm because of the need to invest more state dollars;” a child welfare policy expert said in a 2018 email to a Bryant staffer, “on the other, accessing the federal funds for the front-end work would allow TANF to be repurposed for something else.”

The expert also noted that the TANF funds necessary to build the computer system hadn’t been allocated and asked for an explanation. There was no response to this email within the archived file containing Family First records.

Mississippi used $20.1 million of its TANF dollars on child welfare in 2018, $27.1 million in 2019 and $21.8 million in 2020, according to the state’s reporting to the federal government. A spokesperson for Child Protection Services told Mississippi Today that the agency had received $35 million in TANF to “fill ‘budget holes’” in 2021 and that it currently receives up to $30 million in TANF annually, representing 20% of its budget. TANF spending on grants to nonprofits has significantly declined since the scandal, resulting in an unused balance of nearly $50 million in federal funds, according to the most recent available reports.

Beyond the tension over how the initiative would be financially supported, there was another problem: people were confusing the Family First Initiative and Families First for Mississippi, not just because of their similar names and overlapping leaders, but because the company hired to market both groups, Cirlot Agency, used the same logo for each project. 

From the beginning, Beam expressed concern over how Cirlot, which was recording meetings and producing dazzling videos for the initiative, was being compensated. 

Davis responded that the state agency had an “ongoing work relationship” with Cirlot and that his deputy would check to ensure “everything is properly procured and in-line with all funding stream requirements.”

But it wasn’t, auditors found.

A state audit released almost two years later revealed that New’s nonprofit improperly paid Cirlot Agency a whopping $1.7 million for various branding and planning work, including $300,000 for materials it developed for Beam’s judicial initiative. Federal regulations prohibit states from using welfare money on many of these services, the audit states. Cirlot continues to partner with the state in its programs for children.

“We don’t think we did a thing wrong and did everything according to how we were contracted to do it,” Cirlot CEO Liza Cirlot Looser told Mississippi Today.

Looser said her company was not aware of the source of the funds. Officials have not accused Cirlot of any wrongdoing or instructed Cirlot to return the funds.

On Dec. 16, 2018, Cirlot Agency President Rick Looser met with Beam to recommend she change the name of her initiative to something else, in part because of the similarity to the program run by Nancy New. Beam, bothered by what had occurred, described her demeanor in the meeting as quiet and reserved.

Rick Looser told Mississippi Today that Beam never followed up with Cirlot to move forward with the rebranding and that it was their last meeting. The company did no more work for the initiative after that, Looser said.

For the rest of the initiative’s first year, little took place, Beam said.

The justice said that as she became uncomfortable with the insincerity of the mission, she began to back away from the initiative. 

Reporter tweeting from the Oct. 3, 2018 Family First steering committee meeting.

In July of 2019, Cindy Cheeks, the court’s coordinator for the initiative, sent an email with a link to the Family First annual report to dozens of stakeholders, such as Phil Bryant’s then-chief of staff Joey Songy, state agency and nonprofit employees, church officials and judges.

The initiative had struggled to demonstrate a consistent objective or measure its impact.

A court press release announcing the launch of the initiative had explained plainly: “If children are sleeping on the floor, someone out there has beds to donate. If the house is dirty, would a group of church volunteers be willing to help clean it?”

But the annual report does not provide any examples in which the initiative facilitated a person in poverty receiving a bed or having their home cleaned.

In the report, the initiative does take credit for the pilot counties that expanded free legal services or provided child care assistance to parents receiving a GED, for example, but it did not provide specifics about how the pilots propped up or paid for the programs, how the services differed from what they would have already provided independent of the initiative, or what the outcomes were.

The annual report contains no data about how many people the initiative assisted and offers only one anecdote about an actual person it helped: members of the initiative coordinated to repair the home of a disabled veteran after a storm.

Beam had a hard time offering her own specific examples of families the initiative assisted: “I’m not on the ground floor,” she said.

“The work that we have done is just because of good Mississippians stepping up,” Beam later added. “Because great stuff is going on, but if we had the resources that Mississippi was entitled to, there’s no telling what we could do.”

When Mississippi Today recently asked Cheeks, the initiative’s full-time coordinator, what the Family First Initiative accomplished, she answered, “What we did, which you know that was very centered around the courts, and then when COVID hit, it shut down a little bit of our operations, but something that we learned through that initiative is that it’s so important to have local resources identified for your different children intercepts — courts, schools. And so, we had eight pilot counties that built coalitions and we learned the effectiveness of coalitions in preventing the removal of children unnecessarily due to neglect.”

The initiative’s 2019 annual report said that 2020 would be the year of full implementation and in 2021, they would evaluate effectiveness of the services.

“We are excited about this great foundational first year and looking forward to year 2 to come,” Cheeks wrote in her 2019 email.

But there wouldn’t be a second year. By then, the auditor’s office had begun an investigation into Davis and his management of the welfare program, which would lead to what officials call the largest public embezzlement case in state history. 

The Family First Initiative quietly dissolved.

Like the now-defunct Families First for Mississippi program – which handed out glossy brochures advertising services that, in some cases, it didn’t even offer – the Family First Initiative ended up being more of a marketing campaign than a true disruption of the cycle of poverty.

“For too long we talk about problems but we don’t really address them, and today we are saying that we are going to put our families first,” Beam told SuperTalk talk show host Paul Gallo during a broadcast of the 2018 summit. 

“Please pay attention,” Gallo told his listeners, “because number one, this will change lives. It’s a new initiative that Justice Beam has been working on, and other folks, First Lady, the governor.”

In an interview on the same day with New and Davis, Gallo quipped, “Sometimes it just takes people like Nancy New and John Davis … to say we’re not going to do this anymore. We’re going to take the lead on this.”

Since then, state prosecutors have nabbed both New and Davis on charges including bribery and fraud — New reached a plea deal while Davis is still pleading not guilty — and they each face potential prison time.

By the end of 2020, the number of children in state custody had dropped by about a third, from 5,872 in December of 2017 to 3,738 in December of 2020. With a caseload of 3,888 in June of 2022, the size of the foster care population has been relatively unchanged since 2020 and experts say will only grow following the state’s new ban on almost all abortions.

Today, the child welfare agency is benefitting from a cash infusion made possible by pandemic relief funds. But neither state agency leaders nor lawmakers have indicated any plans to stop using TANF dollars to shore up Child Protection Services’ budget in the long term.

Meanwhile, the welfare program continues to dwindle. Since the scandal broke, the number of needy families receiving cash assistance, the first tenet of the TANF program, remains on the decline, while Mississippi Department of Human Services has also provided far fewer grants to service providers, building up a unused balance of federal TANF funds in the tens of millions, according to the latest available federal data.

The Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services, now overseen by Commissioner Andrea Sanders, is also still failing to meet settlement requirements within a long running lawsuit over the state’s foster care system, in which plaintiffs say the state failed to protect kids in its custody. 

The agency says it is working on submitting a Family First Act plan that will meet the criteria for pulling down new federal funding, an agency spokesperson told Mississippi Today.

“Beginning her tenure a little over a year ago, Commissioner Sanders discovered that (Family First) plan submission is beneficial to Mississippi families and children and has tasked her team with drafting a comprehensive plan,” an agency statement reads. “Our agency is intentionally developing a plan that focuses on more proactive prevention of child abuse while prioritizing child safety.”

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Anna Wolfe is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter who covers inequity and corruption in government safety net programs, nonprofit service providers and institutions affecting the marginalized. She began reporting for Mississippi Today in 2018, after she approached the editor with the idea of starting a poverty beat, the first of its kind in the state. Wolfe has received national recognition for her years-long coverage of Mississippi’s welfare program, in which she exposed new details about how officials funneled tens of millions of federal public assistance funds away from needy families and instead to their friends, families and the pet projects of famous athletes. Since joining Mississippi Today, she has received several national honors including the Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting, the Livingston Award, two Goldsmith Prizes for Investigative Reporting, the Collier Prize for State Government Accountability, the Sacred Cat Award, the Nellie Bly Award, the John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting Award, the Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, the Sidney Award, the National Press Foundation’s Poverty and Inequality Award and others. Previously, Wolfe worked for three years at Clarion Ledger, Mississippi’s statewide newspaper, where she covered city hall, health care, and wrote stories about hunger and medical billing, earning the Bill Minor Prize for Investigative Journalism two years in a row. Born and raised on the Puget Sound in Washington State, Wolfe moved to Mississippi in 2012 to attend Mississippi State University, where she currently serves on the Digital Journalism Advisory Board. She has lived in Jackson, Mississippi since graduating in 2014.