TUPELO • Three counties in Northeast Mississippi had more than 100 children in Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services (MDCPS) for the month of December.

There are currently 156 children in custody in Lee County, while Marshall County has 112 children in custody and Alcorn County has 104.

Lee County currently has 99 licensed foster care homes, while Alcorn has 37 and Marshall has 24. MDCPS Director of Communications Lea Ann Brandon said they also have several more in process of being licensed. While the number of foster care homes varies in places like Lee County, statewide there are counties that have very few foster homes available.

“There are some (counties) that have none. There are a lot in the Delta where we have one, two, or some counties have none,” Brandon said.

Brandon said the agency always tries to train and recruit more licensed foster care homes in all counties regardless of custody numbers in case the need arises for more immediate foster parents. When a child is first taken into custody, they try to find a relative or close kin who can be a foster parent in order to minimize trauma. If that is not possible, the next step is finding a licensed foster family in the same community in an attempt to have as little disruption in the child’s life as possible.

In counties with low numbers, MDCPS actively tries to recruit more foster homes in two ways. One includes having county offices in each county recruit families throughout the year. Another is through the program Rescue 100, which is faith-based and works with churches to show them how they can assist foster care systems.

The current numbers of children in custody for Lee County and Alcorn County are lower than they were in June, when 169 children were in custody in Lee County and 114 were in Alcorn County. Marshall County rose from 87 children in MDCPS custody in June.

It is common for the number of children in foster care to vary from month to month due to individual cases resolving, Brandon said. She said some reductions could be due to work with youth courts to push through more adoptions. While the primary goal of foster care is reunification with birth parents, Brandon said when parental rights are terminated, they work with attorneys and local chancery courts to match children with “forever homes.” The number of adoptions finalized have grown as a result, Brandon said.

“In 2017, we had a little over 300 (adoptions finalized), and in the past two years, we have been well over 600 a year ... and that is why you’re seeing a lot of the reductions statewide in the number of children in care, but also in individual counties,” Brandon said.

In July 2017, MDCPS hit a recent high of over 6,100 children in care, Brandon said. In December 2019 MDCPS had 4,376 children in care.

From Dec. 1 to Sept. 4, there were 930 investigations investigations of allegations of abuse, neglect or exploitation in Lee County, 428 in Alcorn County and 325 in Marshall County. Of those investigations, 219 had at least one substantiated allegation in Lee County, while Alcorn had 126 and Marshall had 94.

Lee County had 46 cases of physical abuse, 268 of physical neglect, 9 of medical neglect, 31 of sexual abuse and 66 of emotional abuse. Alcorn County had 21 cases of physical abuse, 20 of physical neglect, 5 of medical neglect, 6 of sexual abuse and 22 of emotional abuse. Marshall County had 24 cases of physical abuse, 130 of physical neglect, 6 of medical neglect, 10 of sexual abuse and 32 of emotional abuse.

Brandon said foster homes play a crucial role in helping rebuild a child’s trust and providing care while a child and parents heal.

“Foster families are invaluable in the child protection world. We could not do what we do on a daily basis ... without these foster parents,” Brandon said.

MDCPS allows foster parents to tell them how many children they are equipped to care for. They limit foster parents to five children, birth or foster, in one home, but occasionally make exceptions for siblings.

Through conversations with foster care parents, Brandon said she has found two major myths some foster parents entering the program. One is the idea that they are rescuing a child. Often, Kids are traumatized and will not verbalize fears, so instead they act on them by rebuffing foster parent efforts until they can rebuild trust, Brandon said. Another myth is that foster care is an easy way to adopt. Because of the primary focus being reunification, they encourage foster parents to view it as co-parenting and a team effort with birth parents.

Brandon said anyone interested in being a foster care parent can reach out and apply. Prospective parents have background checks and must go through basic training that includes dealing with trauma and basics like CPR. Potential foster parents also have home inspections to help check for hazards parents may not think of. After completing training, they can be licensed.

Emergency/respite care is an option for interested foster care parents who can only offer short-term care. MDCPS also offers workshops for those interested in the foster care process but unsure what supports exist, and Brandon said interested parties do not have to worry about “lifetime obligations on the front end” just for reaching out for more information.

“We would encourage anyone who is thinking about it to please pursue it further and please let us give them some information,” Brandon said.

Additional information about foster parent qualifications can be found at https://www.mdcps.ms.gov.

danny.mcarthur@journalinc.com

Twitter: @Danny_McArthur_

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