MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - Could a federal court take over Mississippi’s foster care system?
That's what a child advocate is pushing for, arguing the state is violating a federal court agreement by not providing proper care to thousands of children in its custody.
"I think there's chaos in the system right now," said Marcia Robinson Lowry, an attorney and founder of A Better Childhood, a national child advocacy center headquartered in New York.
She calls Mississippi's foster care system one of the worst in the country.
"We think the kids are being harmed. We know they're being harmed," said Lowry.
In 2004, Lowry sued Mississippi on behalf of a dozen children she claimed the state failed to protect while in state custody.
"It was out of concern for the fact that large numbers of children in the Mississippi foster care system were basically being abandoned by the state," explained Lowry.
The plaintiffs included a three-year-old girl, who is listed in court documents under the pseudonym of Olivia Y. The suit claims the state placed Olivia in a home where a convicted rapist also lived. It alleges state foster care workers made no effort to determine if Olivia, who was also malnourished and weighed just 20 pounds, had been sexually abused or carried sexually transmitted diseases.
"A medical exam conducted in December 2003 revealed that Olivia was malnourished and depressed. She also had vaginal redness and swelling, an indicator of sexual abuse," the lawsuit reads. "However, the doctor performing the examination was not given a history of sexual abuse, so he did not perform a detailed vaginal examination."
The suit claimed the state violated Olivia's constitutional and statutory rights by failing to protect her from harm.
The state settled (and eventually re-settled) the case several years later, agreeing to overhaul its foster care system.
In court documents filed in January, the state listed several ways it improved its foster care system. It said it reduced the number of kids in its custody (4,750 as of April 2019), eliminated overdue investigations, and recruited and licensed 400 new foster homes in 2018.
The state also restructured its foster care system, now called the Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services (MDCPS), making it an independent agency, which reports directly to the governor.
The state also hired more caseworkers, but state leaders admit there is more work to do in reducing their caseload.
“Our goal is for all caseworkers, regardless of where they are assigned, to have no more than an average of 14 cases,” said Lea Anne Brandon, director of communications for MDCPS. “We are, on average, slightly above that caseload cap but everyone is very close to meeting it. Roughly 65 percent of our workers have 14 cases or less. The remaining 35 percent are close or very close with only a few cases over. We are diligently working to bring everyone into caseload limit compliance.”
But Lowry said Mississippi is far behind what it agreed to in the court settlement and asked a federal judge to seize control and put a third party in charge of the foster care system.
"That's a very drastic remedy. It's not one we would easily seek," said Lowry. "But we think the system is so bad here and there has been so little change, that I think it's finally necessary for the court to do."
The state filed a response to Lowry's contempt motion, arguing the caseload cap requirements in the latest settlement are "unworkable" and would be "detrimental to the public interest."
Attorneys for the state cited funding cuts in recent years and asked the judge to do away with requirements.
Brandon said state funding has been a major problem, but additional funding approved for next year should help, though it's not clear how much.
In his state of the state, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant predicted victory in the courts.
"CPS is making great progress," said Bryant. "If we continue to show our collective support for the neglected and abused children of our state, I believe the federal courts will find favor with our actions. More importantly, so will God Almighty."
Before issuing a ruling, determining whether to proceed with receivership, the federal judge is waiting for a court monitor to report back on Mississippi's efforts to reform its foster care system.
Court documents show the report should be finished by the end of June, though Lowry expects it will be finished in May.
To read court documents associated with the Olivia Y. case visit MDCPS.
To read additional information about the case, visit A Better Childhood’s website.