Lawyers urged for parents in foster care cases

By Jeff Amy
Associated Press

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — It sounds counterintuitive. But Mississippi officials say parents who are about to lose their children to child welfare authorities do better when they’re represented by lawyers in youth court. So officials are asking for more state money to pay for more lawyers.

Supporters of the plan, including state Supreme Court Justice Dawn Beam and Child Protective Services Commissioner Jess Dickinson, spoke to lawmakers last week at the Capitol.

They’re shaking the tin cup, urging legislators to squeeze a little more money out of $6 billion in state revenue next year for the program.

They’re asking for $312,000, which would replace foundation and federal government funding that helps pay for the program in 10 existing counties. Foundation and federal money, in turn, would be used to bring the lawyer program to 11 additional counties.

Right now, children and the Mississippi’s Department of Child Protective Services are represented, but parents are often on their own.

“Everyone in that courtroom needs representation,” said John Hudson, a former Adams County youth court judge who is now the court system’s jurist in residence.

But that’s not the main pitch that’s being made to lawmakers. State Supreme Court Justice Dawn Beam said more lawyers will reduce children entering state custody. That keeps families together and saves the state money.

The number of children in Child Protective Services custody has fallen from 6,100 when former Supreme Court Justice Jess Dickinson took over in September 2017 to fewer than 4,900 today. Dickinson attributes some of that to an effort to increase the number of adoptions statewide.

But the number of children in state custody has fallen slightly more, proportionally in the 10 counties with parent representation.

The Supreme Court Commission on Children’s Justice says numbers in those counties are down from nearly 2,800 in March 2017 to about 2,200 in late 2018. The commission says those 600 fewer children saved the state $3.5 million a year, even after federal aid.

“The fact that many of our parents are being represented has an important effect,” Dickinson told lawmakers Thursday.

The commission says parent lawyers can help parents find services and can hold Child Protective Services workers accountable.

The commission also says courts conclude more quickly which parents aren’t going to work for reunification when they’re represented by lawyers, helping judges move more quickly toward putting a child in care of a relative or up for adoption.

“Sure, there are cases where you have to remove, we all know that,” said Rankin County Youth Court Judge Tom Broome. “But the better outcome is if you give the parent representation and give them strength.”

Broome said that’s in part because 82 percent of Mississippi children who enter foster care are placed there for neglect, often driven by parents’ poverty. Only 18 percent of children enter foster care because of abuse.

Right now, parent representation is provided in 10 counties, including Mississippi’s five most populous — Hinds, Harrison, DeSoto, Rankin, and Jackson. The state began putting in $200,000 a year in 2017.

That’s part of a total of $876,500 in spending on parent lawyers this year, including $364,500 from counties and $312,000 from the federal government and foundations.

Casey Family Programs and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation are the private groups that have been giving money.

With the increased federal funding and county contributions, commission wants the state to spend $1.37 million next year. That would pay for parent representation programs in 11 new counties in northeast and southeast Mississippi.

“Give us that small smidgeon we’re asking for here today,” Broome said, saying federal aid was also likely to increase. “That little bit of money will multiply greatly.”