JACKSON • Six northeast Mississippi counties are now providing legal representation to some parents during youth court proceedings.

The counties – Alcorn, Itawamba, Lee, Pontotoc, Tishomingo and Union – and the state are splitting the costs to hire five attorneys to represent indigent parents in abuse and neglect proceedings in youth courts in the six counties.

Senior Chancellor Jacqueline Mask of Tupelo said the new lawyers started work last week.

“When parents have an attorney, they have an advocate who will assist them in working through the court system to bring the case to completion for the best interest of their children,” said Mask, a member of the Commission on Children’s Justice and co-chair of the Access to Justice Commission.

By providing legal representation for parents who can’t afford to hire a lawyer, it is more likely that families will stay together and avoid foster care by showing the court that they can provide a safe environment at home. The courts and the Department of Child Protection Services place strong emphasis on making reasonable efforts to keep families together.

Itawamba, Pontotoc, Tishomingo and Union counties each authorized spending $6,000 for parent representation, with state funds matching that, Mask said. Alcorn County will spend $9,000 and Lee County, $19,500, with a state funding match.

“The local boards of supervisors realize the need to keep our families together by providing parents with representation in youth court,” Mask said.

Local officials said without the state funding, the counties could never afford to hire youth court attorneys.

“It would create another full time expensive position for the county if we did not have this access to state funding,” said Lee County Chancery Clerk and County Administrator Bill Benson. “It’s a tremendous help.”

The Legislature appropriated $278,500 statewide for parent representation in the 2020 fiscal year that began July 1. This is the third year for state funding and an increase from the $200,000 provided in the previous years.

Pilot programs which began in 2012 relied heavily on Casey Family Programs for funding. The Kellogg Foundation added funding in 2017. The Parent Representation Task Force continues to urge lawmakers to increase public funding to sustain and expand parent representation.

Attorneys are available to represent indigent parents in 23 counties, said Jurist in Residence John N. Hudson of Natchez. Some counties pay for their own programs, and some utilize a combination of state dollars, county matching funds, a federal court improvement grant and private foundation contributions from Casey Family Programs and the Kellogg Foundation.

william.moore@journalinc.com

Twitter:@WilliamMoore_DJ

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