July 10, 2012 9:39:37 AM
JACKSON -- Mississippi officials have agreed to a revised settlement in a lawsuit alleging that the state was not doing enough to care for minors in the foster care system.
The new agreement is meant to push the state to fulfill promises it made when it first settled the suit in 2008, adding a sixth year on what was originally expected to be a five-year process. That gives the state a total of three more years from now to meet the goals.
The suit was first brought in 2004 by a New York-based group, Children's Rights, on behalf of minors that it said were being mistreated in the state's foster care system.
The group says child welfare workers still are trying to manage too many cases in many counties. It also says Mississippi is doing too little to ensure that children are safe in foster homes and to find permanent homes for them quickly. And it says the state isn't moving quickly enough to provide health care and education to foster children.
"The state's performance shows a lack of commitment to protecting the abused and neglected children of Mississippi," said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children's Rights.
The group pointed to a recent court monitor's report that showed the Department of Human Services was falling short of the milestones it agreed to meet in the original settlement. That report identified inadequate staffing and an antiquated computer system as major problems.
Children's Rights tried to have the state held in contempt last year, which could have led to a court-appointed receiver taking over the foster care system. Instead, U.S. District Judge Tom Lee ordered the parties to work out a new agreement. Lee approved the new settlement Friday.
The state agency says it believes it has already made progress in caring for about 3,500 foster children. Spokeswoman Julia Bryan cited more employees, more supervisors, reimbursement for workers who seek advanced social work degrees, more training, and a unit that focuses on improving services.
"The Mississippi Department of Human Services is committed to making needed reforms to Mississippi's child welfare system and is determined to make them in a reasonable period of time," Bryan wrote in an email. "The children of our state deserve nothing but our best efforts."
Children's Rights attorney Miriam Ingber said the group will be watching to make sure Mississippi does a better job conforming with the second settlement.
"I can only hope that they will and if they don't, we will take steps to make sure they do," Ingber said.
Bryan could not say how much the settlement would cost the state or how many more workers would be hired. The monitor's report suggests that between 80 and 135 more caseworkers need to be hired. Staffing deficits are worst in Hancock, Harrison, Jackson and Hinds counties. And while the number of caseworkers has been growing, the state actually lost supervisors between January 2010 and April 2012.
The Department of Human Services received an additional $6 million from the Legislature for the budget year that began July 1, raising its overall budget to $875 million. That's less than a 1 percent increase over the $869 million it got in the budget year that just ended. About 83 percent of all funds come from the federal government.
Because agencies were given the power to shift money internally in the 2013 budget, no figures were immediately available on how much Human Services plans to spend on the Division of Family & Children's Services.
Ingber said the group believes Mississippi could obtain more federal money, and could cut some costs by placing fewer children in expensive shelters and group homes. Individual foster care homes are usually cheaper.
"A lot of it is not based on money," Ingber said. "It's about doing social work right."
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