Mississippi ranks last in child welfare, foster system struggles

Posted on Apr 21 2017 - 8:00am by Jonathan Gibson

Children across the country face hardships when it comes to opportunity and living situations, but Mississippi children may have it worse than most.

According to a new study released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation Kids Count Data Center, Mississippi ranks last among all U.S. states in overall child-welfare.

This inadequacy is especially apparent at the state level in the Mississippi Department of Family and Children’s Services and foster care programs.

While many states struggle to provide adequate resources for children, Mississippi has repeatedly failed to provide necessary funding and access to programs like foster care and child health care. Simultaneously, poverty rates among families throughout the state have increased drastically.

“Mississippi’s poverty rate is higher than most of the states in the country,” Oleta Fitzgerald, southern regional director of the Children’s Defense Fund said.

The child poverty rate in Mississippi is 34 percent, meaning a third of all children in Mississippi live in impoverished conditions, and more than 60 percent of impoverished families in the state are headed by single mothers, according to the Mississippi Economic Policy Center.

The average income one adult and two children require to meet basic needs is estimated to be around $51,180 a year, but the median annual income for a woman in Mississippi is only $31,465.

This disparity is only one of the ways by which the state fails to provide children many of their basic needs.

Mississippi’s foster care program has faced public backlash for its struggles to meet the needs of children in the state before.

In 2004, Children’s Rights, a national children’s advocacy center, brought a civil suit against the state for its alleged failure to prevent the abuse and neglect of eight plaintiffs in the foster care system.

One plaintiff referred to as Olivia Y., was removed from her family at age three, weighing only 22 pounds. According to a testimony from center’s website, she was moved between five placements, including one home where a convicted rapist resided. During her entire time in custody, DFCS failed to provide her with necessary medical assessments and health care.

The state settled with Children’s Rights in 2008, under the condition they lower the caseloads for social workers, lower the response time for reports of abuse and eliminate the practice of placing children in unlicensed foster homes.

Mississippi only has 1,486 licensed foster homes for the more than 5,000 children in state custody, leaving many children with no hope of being placed in a home at all.

A New York Times article noted that as of January 2016, 4,367 children monitored by the state have not been placed in custody.

Since 2014, at least four Mississippi children have died in state custody due to neglect or placement in abusive homes.

Because of the massive shortage of licensed foster homes, last year more than 500 children were placed into unlicensed homes — sometimes with relatives that have the same issues with drugs and abuse as the families the children were removed from in the first place.

This oversight by the DFCS has led to a rise in abuse reports, but these reports rarely made it past being officially recorded. Using state data ranging from 2001 to 2016, the New York Times noted that “more than 6,200 reports of abuse, neglect and the use of unsafe foster homes were not investigated [by the DFCS].”

“How could any case worker with a caseload of 70 to 100 manage to go out and see the children?,” Mississippi case worker Julia Wasvick said.

The average salary for a social worker, a profession that requires a four-year degree from a university, is $23,643 per year. Some make so little they actually qualify for welfare.

Because of these less-than-desirable work conditions, the turnover rate for social workers across the country reaches as high as 70 percent.

Conditions for Mississippi children have improved significantly since 2004, but a lack of licensed foster families in the state lead to a legislative push to get people involved in the program.

Rescue 100, a collaborative effort between the DFCS,  the Mississippi Commission on Children’s Justice, 200 Million Flowers and churches across the state of Mississippi, has organized events around Mississippi to support reducing families’ licensing times from several months down to just a few days.

The organization recently hosted an event at the Robert Khayat School of Law to help meet the need for foster families here in Oxford.

These programs certainly help to increase the number of foster families in the state, but much work is still necessary in order to get the state where it needs to be for the future.

“We congratulate the state on its willingness to acknowledge how far it still has to go,” Marcia Robinson Lowry, attorney and executive director of A Better Childhood, said. “This is a significant commitment to bringing caseloads down to professional standards, to making sure all children are in licensed homes, and to ensuring that all children are in homes or facilities that actually are able to care for them.

“They have a lot of work to do,” Lowry said. “But we are ready to work with them to see that it gets done.”