JACKSON – The deficit for the current fiscal year for the newly created agency of Child Protection Services has been reduced from more than $50 million to $12 million, the House Appropriations Committee was told Tuesday.

Jess Dickinson, Child Protection Services executive director, said the deficit has been reduced by pooling resources with the Department of Human Services to draw down federal funds, by enacting a hiring freeze and by postponing the development of a new computer system.

Dickinson admitted the hiring freeze and the delay in developing a new computer system could put his agency at risk of being out of compliance with a settlement the state reached in a federal lawsuit.

The lawsuit was filed because of Mississippi’s problems in providing adequate care for neglected and abused children.

While Dickinson said the plaintiffs who filed the lawsuit against the state will not be pleased, he said in the end they will understand “because we have to have an agency” and cutbacks must be made to ensure the agency has funds for the rest of the fiscal year.

The services rendered by Child Protection Services previously were provided by the state Department of Human Services. Child Protection Services was created in 2016 legislation to handle the state’s foster care system as part of the lawsuit settlement.

Dickinson said the deficit was needed, because as a separate agency, Child Protection Services was unable to draw down certain matching federal funds that were available when the services were provided by Human Services and because the agency was never properly funded by the Legislature.

Earlier this session, Dickinson originally said the deficit request would be more than $50 million. A deficit request occurs when the Legislature is forced to provide funds to an agency during the current fiscal year.

A $50 million deficit would be difficult for the Legislature to deal with this fiscal year because of ongoing sluggish revenue collections.

Part of the deficit was solved by Child Protection Services remaining under the umbrella of Human Services. Dickinson will run the agency, but the two agencies will pool such items as travel expenses. He said DHS can draw down federal funds that would pay for as much as 90 percent of the travel expenses whereas if Child Protection Services was acting on its own it would be responsible for 100 percent of the travel costs.

Rep. Preston Sullivan, D-Okolona, questioned how services at DHS will be impacted if that agency will be expending its funds to help Child Protection Services.

“Somebody has to take a hit,” he said.

But DHS Executive Director John Davis said he believes his agency can help Child Protection Services without negatively impacting DHS. DHS oversees various programs, such as Temporary Aid for Needy Families and the Food Stamp program. The agency already has been criticized by some because of the low acceptance rate of those applying for TANF.

But Davis said in many instances when the agency does not provide benefits, it still will provide other services, such as jobs skill training.

As far as the new agency, Dickinson told the House Appropriations Committee members his agency had custody of more than 5,800 abused or neglected children. Some are in foster care homes while others are in other group programs, out of state in some instances. For instance, he said one child with special needs is in a program in Atlanta costing the state $60,000 per year. He said that is the closest program available to deal with the child’s needs.

He conceded that the state currently is not meeting the requirements of the lawsuit settlement in terms of the number of caseworkers to deal with the children in state custody. He expressed hope that if the Legislature dealt with the $12 million deficit for this year and adequately funded the agency for the new fiscal year beginning July 1 that progress could be made in complying with the terms.

bobby.harrison@journalinc.com Twitter: @bobbyharrison9

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