Foster care back in court

By JACK RYAN/ENTERPRISE-JOURNAL,

If there is one bothersome thing about recent editions of the Mississippi Legislature, it is the Republican majority’s willingness to reduce funding for social services.

Yes, Medicaid spending keeps taking up a bigger share of the budget each year, and that surely drains money from other programs. But many who pay the price for this are defenseless without the aid of state government.

Cutbacks in mental health services come to mind, and a years-long lawsuit about the state foster care system makes a compelling argument that the state has not seriously tried to solve acknowledged problems in the Department of Child Protective Services.

A report released this week said the department, which provides care for nearly 5,000 foster children in Mississippi, is meeting only 37 of 113 goals set down in a court decree.

A story from The Associated Press said excessive social worker caseloads remain a big issue. The state had agreed to limit the number of cases a social worker handled, but only 57 percent of those employees were at or below that limit at the end of 2018.

Department managers were not supposed to supervise more than five social workers, but only 79 percent of them met that limit.

The report, prepared by an outside monitor, also questioned whether the Department of Child Protective Services is doing enough to investigate reports of mistreatment of children who have been placed in foster care. Another problem is administrative: The department’s outdated computer system, along with data-entry errors, has prevented the tracking of more than one-quarter of the 113 goals.

Add it all up and it sounds like lawmakers have not allocated money for enough social workers. This has occurred in spite of a large decline in the number of children in foster care over the past two years, from 6,200 in 2017 to 4,848 this spring.

Perhaps there is a high turnover rate in the job, which is understandable given the sad nature of the work. One way to counter that is to pay experienced social workers more so they’ll stick around a little longer.

An attorney who has represented a foster-care child in a 15-year-old lawsuit says she will use this report to ask the federal judge to hold Mississippi in contempt of court, and to seek an outside manager for Child Protective Services.

The department has had an outside manager for the past two years: Jess Dickinson, a former Mississippi Supreme Court justice. He said this week that the Legislature has allocated an extra $15 million to the department starting next month, and the public can expect “greatly improved services to children.”

Most likely, the judge will give Dickinson a little more time to fix things. He probably deserves it. Still, this case is a tempting way to warn budgeters that social services agencies deliver important services. It would be a very appropriate wake-up call if the judge decided to put another manager in charge.