/Child Protection Services, once lauded, now in major violation of court order

Child Protection Services, once lauded, now in major violation of court order

According to a lawyer representing the plaintiffs in this case, the Department of Child Protection Services of the state has violated a court order. Marcia Lowry, a New York-based attorney from A Better Childhood, sent Child Protection Services a letter last week. The letter claims that the agency violated a Dec. 31 court order for not having enough caseworkers to monitor the children within the system. This is a violation of an agreement only 15 months old. Lowry stated by telephone that “we were living, maybe, in a fool’s paradise.” “We were assured last year that they’d be in compliance.” Mississippi Today contacted Jess Dickinson to confirm Lowry’s findings that showed that 39% of agency caseworkers had cases that were excessively large. The most recent consent agreement states that this number should have been less than ten percent at the end of 2017. Dickinson stated that he was aware of the agency’s failures but had hoped for leniency on the part of the plaintiffs until the agency received the funds necessary to complete the settlement. Dickinson stated that “we are not going to have the funds to comply with this fiscal year.” “We are doing our best. We hope we get properly funded for next year, and if not, we think that we can solve this problem.” Lowry says this is a last resort. Lowry stated that she would meet with the agency in the next 30 days to discuss the next steps. This is a remarkable turn around for the agency. Although the Olivia Y litigation has been ongoing for 14 years, the Legislature established the Department of Child Protection Services in 2016. The agency seems to be moving in the right directions. David Chandler, the former commissioner, was awarded a national award last year for his contributions to improving the state system. Gov. Phil Bryant praised Dickinson and the agency. CPS’s violation is just one of a number of high-profile missteps the agency has had in recent months. Dickinson, who was speaking to the Senate Appropriations Committee about CPS’s $39 million deficit for 2018, shocked lawmakers on the same day Bryant’s State of the State. Buck Clarke (R-Hollanddale), Senate Appropriations Chairman, stated in January that “it’s just kinda blown us away.” “Everything that we had heard was that the agency is fine.” However, Dickinson said that the agency wasn’t fine. CPS was denied federal matching funds of tens of million dollars from the Department of Human Services due to a legislative error. The error was largely attributed to the legislators who have claimed that they had calculated the budget of the agency assuming the funds would be available. Dickinson maintains that he discovered problems with CPS in the first weeks after he took over the agency’s reins. However, he didn’t inform legislators until December. He claimed that the previous CPS administration was either unaware of the problem or hadn’t informed legislators about it. The agency was able to reduce its deficit request by working with the Department of Human Services, and made internal changes. However, the compromise of reducing budget has meant massive spending cuts. CPS won’t be able increase the number caseworkers this fiscal year. This means that the agency is further away from the compliance goals set forth in the settlement. Dickinson claimed Monday that the deficit is not related to the claim of non-compliance. He claimed that the agency was not on track to meet the settlement well before the deficit was discovered. This supports claims Dickinson has made since January, which he says bolsters his claims that the agency was in serious trouble when he joined the agency last fall. Dickinson stated that the deficit was not due to the fact that CPS wasn’t in compliance by Dec. 31. “We tried to hire as many people and staff as possible, but we were unable to keep them. We determined that their low salaries were a key factor in our ability hire and retain staff.” CPS was granted permission by the state Personnel Board in January to increase the salaries of its caseworkers. These individuals work directly with children in foster care. Their annual salary is now approximately $26,000 to $30,000 per year. Dickinson claimed that this has helped to reduce turnover. However, the deficit was already apparent by the time Dickinson implemented the raise. The agency couldn’t afford to spend more salaries than it was spending. Former commissioner Chandler answered questions about Dickinson’s assessment and said that the agency had been on track to comply with the settlement agreement during his tenure. He had signed it the previous year. “I spoke with all employees who were in key management positions during my administration, and they unanimously agreed that the following: 1. We met all the requirements of the federal court order, and this was done within budget. 2. We were certain that the foundation we had built would allow CPS to meet all federal court orders within budget when I left. 3. Lowry acknowledged that the agency had made great strides in implementing the terms of the settlement agreement. These included licensing over 500 foster homes unlicensed, creating a protocol to prioritize severe cases, and giving all caseworkers computers or tablets for fieldwork. Lowry stated that 2017 saw a lot of positive things. “But, the goal was to increase capacity so that we could deliver on these conditions by 2018. “We were optimistic that this was going to mark a new era in Mississippi’s Department of Child Protection Services,” Lowry said. But it is not clear why the new CPS keeps repeating old patterns. According to her, Chandler’s budget submitted to the court last fiscal year contained “a lot more federal income than what the agency claimed it received.” Lowry stated that she will not know the exact cause of the breakdown until she has more data. Lowry stated that CPS was not subject to the strictest monitoring by the plaintiffs under the 2016 settlement agreement. Lowery stated that this is likely to change. Lowry stated that “someone here isn’t being candid, but I don’t really know who it might be.” “I know for certain that they are not complying with the settlement. “I think the Mississippi children deserve better.” In 2004, Olivia Y was filed by six children in foster care. The state of Mississippi was sued for failing to provide adequate care for the children it had in its custody. The plaintiffs, collectively known as Olivia Y, were sided by a federal court and the resulting settlement has completely remade this agency. The most important mandate was to transform Mississippi’s Division of Family and Children Services (which had been part of the Department of Human Services) into an independent agency. However, the agency was no longer eligible for federal funds it had received under the Department of Human Services. For their part, legislative leaders have mostly taken responsibility for this oversight. A bill to make CPS a sub agency of DHS, which would allow it to be eligible for the higher match rate, is likely to wind up on Governor’s desk. Lowry points out that while state officials frequently mention Child Protection Services being a priority, the portion of the settlement that the agency didn’t comply with — hiring staff — was also one that cost the greatest amount. Lowry stated that the decision on whether or not the agency gets the money is ultimately up to the elected officials of the state. Lowry stated that if the agency is unable to meet its contractual obligations because of the deficit, then the Legislature must give it enough money. Lowry stated that “they need to do something” and “they’re not doing it.” “I don’t know what the problem is at the moment, but I believe the state should be able raise the money to fund the employees. They must do this. They cannot run the agency constitutionally without it.”