The last few years have witnessed a redoubling of efforts to work on behalf of Mississippi children in danger of abuse, neglect or exploitation.
The Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services (MDCPS) was created by action passed during the 2016 Mississippi legislative session, carving it out of the Mississippi Department of Human Services. It is the state’s leading child welfare agency with its commissioner being a member of the governor’s cabinet. The agency has offices in all of Mississippi’s 82 counties with social workers on staff.
“I’m excited about what we’ve been able to accomplish for children at risk in Mississippi. It’s a huge job, but I love it,” said Lea Anne Brandon, director of communication for MDCPS.
Statistics are reflecting success in the mission of the agency.
“Mississippi currently cares for 700 fewer children and teenagers in foster care than it did 14 months ago thanks to a successful three-pronged effort to reunify families, remove obstacles to adoption and avoid removal of children from birth parents – all while keeping the safety and protection of these children an over-arching priority,” Brandon stated in a press release last year.
From April 2017 to May 2018, the number of foster children removed from their homes decreased from 6,094 to 5,403, according to the press release.
The current commissioner is former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Jess H. Dickinson. According to the agency’s website, he stated the mission of the agency is to move children in crisis into an environment of safety.
“Our priority is to ensure the safety and protection of every child,” he said in a press release. “Our goal is to move these children – safely and prudently – into permanency whether that be reunification with their birth parent or through adoption, if it is determined by the courts it will not be possible to return them to their homes.”
The process begins with the simple maxim – “If you see something, say something.”
Child protection services can be contacted day or night by calling 1-800-222-8000, by visiting www.mdcps.gov or by downloading the agency’s smart phone app.
State agency efforts cooperate with private partners to provide services in the home to at-risk children and their families to avoid circumstances when children would not be safe in their homes. If they must be removed and taken into state custody, they are placed by court order into licensed foster care – either with a relative, which is emergency placement, or with a licensed foster family, therapeutic foster homes, group homes or residential treatment facilities.
“A child’s placement is determined by what level of care best meets each child’s individual needs,” she said.
Brandon said a report of suspected child abuse or neglect received at the centralized toll-free line is referred to a front-line investigator in the appropriate county office who will seek a face-to-face encounter with the alleged victim, guardians and other collateral sources.
The process then proceeds to an appearance and hearing before a chancery or youth court judge for disposition of the case.
“We operate under a Safe at Home policy, where removal is the last resort,” Brandon said. “A child is most likely to succeed in the place where they feel at home. Our in-circle home services have a goal of preserving normalcy.”
MDCPS continually endeavors to license foster parents to be available to receive placements where remaining at home is determined not to be suitable for the child.
“We set up a family team meeting to evaluate circumstances and develop a service plan to get back to normal,” Brandon said. “Monthly follow-up visits maintain continual contact with the family.”
In cases when parental rights must be terminated, the state attorney general’s office becomes involved.
Both Brandon and Dickinson emphasize that foster care is not viewed as a permanent solution.
“At best, foster care is intended to be a temporary intervention for children who need the safety and security of an out of home placement,” Dickinson said in a press release. “It was never intended to be a long-term or permanent solution to the problem. We operate on the conviction that children develop best when raised in families and that all children and youth both deserve and need a permanent and loving family.”
According to Brandon, the basic plan is reunification or finding a relative who is willing to act as a foster parent. The last resort is adoption by an unrelated family or group home.
“Everything we do works together to keep children safe and protected,” Dickinson said in the press release. “Each day we show up to work, we see a success story.”