Mississippi has dramatically decreased the number of children in state custody thanks to a successful three-pronged “Safe at Home” effort to reunify families, eliminate obstacles to adoption and avoid traumatic removal of children from their birth parents – all while keeping the safety and protection of these children as a primary focus.
For the first time since July 2015, the Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services now has less than 5,000 infants, children and youth in state foster care – 1,113 less children than the highest count recorded in early 2017.
As of December 1, 2018, the number of Mississippi children in foster care has been safely reduced to 4,981.
“Our professional staff, frontline workers, and supervisors have contributed to this substantial reduction in the number of children in state custody without any compromise to the safety and well-being of the children, whether those reunified with their birth parents, those placed in guardianships with relatives, or those adopted into their new forever homes,” said MDCPS Commissioner Jess H. Dickinson.
In April 2017, the Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services had custody of 6,094 foster children who had been removed from their homes by the courts because of neglect, abuse or exploitation. The number of children in state custody began increasing in 2014 and 2015 – and steadily increased until it peaked in 2017. At that point, MDCPS leadership launched a concerted “Safe at Home” effort to reduce the trauma caused to children and families by removal into foster care. MDCPS, the courts and private agency partners together increased efforts to provide in-home services to parents and families to address problems and issues which otherwise would force removal of children from their homes and placing them into state custody. By safely maintaining children in their homes, significant and long-lasting trauma to more than a thousand Mississippi families and their children has been avoided.
“We are grateful to our excellent youth court judges, guardians ad litem, parent representatives, and other youth court staff for their careful attention to the needs of the children, and their willingness to work alongside MDCPS to accomplish this significant milestone.”
Tonya Rogillio, deputy commissioner for child welfare, said MDCPS’s priority is to “ensure the safety and protection of every child. Our goal is to move these children, safely and prudently, into permanency whether that be reunification with their birth parent or other family members -- or through adoption, if it is determined by the courts it will not be possible to return them to their homes.”
“Ensuring the safety and protection of Mississippi’s children is the single most important determination for every action we take regarding the care of these children.”
To avoid taking children into custody whenever safely possible, MDCPS is working with private partners statewide to provide intensive, in-home services to at-risk children and their families. The goal is to resolve issues which, if left unaddressed, could deteriorate to the point that children would not be safe in the home and must be removed and taken into state custody.
Children who come into state custody are placed by court order into licensed foster care - either with a relative (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.
“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. It was never intended to be a long-term or permanent solution to the problem,” Dickinson said.
“We operate on the conviction that children develop best when raised in families and that all children and youth both deserve and deserve a permanent and loving family,” Rogillio added.
Under Dickinson’s leadership, MDCPS has also emphasized the recruitment and licensure of additional foster care homes in all Mississippi counties to provide safe and caring temporary placements for children in custody. Thus far in 2018, Mississippi has licensed more than 331 new foster homes in 67 Mississippi counties. Currently, MDCPS is actively recruiting families statewide to foster and provide care for children who are in the agency’s custody.
“Whenever we take a child into custody, it is critical for us to maintain as much normalcy in their lives as possible. For this reason, we need licensed foster families in every Mississippi county who are available to take care of these children until they can either be reunited with their birth families or adopted,” said Dr. Jaworski Davenport, deputy commissioner for child safety. “Having sufficient numbers of safe and licensed local foster homes allows our children to maintain connections to their communities, their schools and other activities.”
For the past 18 months, MDCPS has also focused on finalizing adoption procedures for children whose parental rights have been terminated, allowing them to be placed with new “forever” families. MDCPS staff work hand-in-hand with the Office of the Attorney General to address legal obstacles which may be delaying the adoptions. As a result, MDCPS more than doubled the number of adoptions finalized in fiscal year 2018 as compared to previous year adoptions.
“Everything we do works together to keep children safe and protected,” Dickinson concluded. “Each day we show up to work, we see a success story.”
In November, MDCPS hosted a statewide celebration to recognize the 647 adoptions of former foster children finalized in Mississippi during SFY 2018. In the previous fiscal year, there were 301 finalized adoptions.
“So many wonderful people work hard every day and night to protect these children and find them safe homes. I am so grateful to be a part of this celebration,” Dickinson said.
In SFY 2018, which ended June 30, MDCPS worked to reunify more than 2,500 children with their birth families. A statewide celebration was held in May.
“You have proven to yourselves and to your families that you are willing to do what it takes to succeed, because your children and your families are worth it,” Dickinson told the parents and family members gathered for the event. “Everyone has family problems. Many run away from them but you had the courage and the will and determination to face them, and to fix them.”
In 2016, MDCPS identified more than 1,500 children in state custody who had a permanent plan for adoption but whose case progress had stalled. Working in tandem with the Office of the Attorney General and the court system, MDCPS began in July/August 2017 to examine each case to identify obstacles to adoptions being finalized. A new director was promoted to manage the Permanency Support Services Unit. The changes implemented have significantly decreased processing times for all adoption documentation, tasks and submissions.
MDCPS has also made it a priority to move children as quickly as possible from state custody to a successful adoption whenever adoption is the child’s permanent plan and reunification with the birth family is not possible or recommended. In partnership with Casey Family Programs, MDCPS began a process of Rapid Permanency Reviews in Spring 2017. This has resulted in a significant increase in finalized adoptions.
In fiscal year 2017, there were 302 adoptions finalized. In fiscal year 2018, the agency finalized 647 adoptions.
In 2017, MDCPS facilitated the safe reunification of 2,272 foster children and youth with their birth families. The agency has increased efforts in 2018 to make sure safety and neglect issues are resolved by working closely with families and parents to address and resolve problems so children can be safely reunited in as short a time as possible.
“Reunification takes work, commitment and a huge investment of time and resources by parents, family members, family service specialists, foster parents, service providers, attorney, courts and the community at-large,” Dickinson said. “These families work hard to overcome an array of challenges to reunify safely.”
Safe at Home
MDCPS has adopted a comprehensive plan of work which focuses all staff efforts to identify and implement measures to keep families intact whenever safely possible. This includes: strengthening initial safety assessment tools and protocols, providing expanded and more intensive in-home services; ensuring all reasonable efforts have been made before recommending removal of a child from the home; strengthening family plans to resolve safety/risk issues as expeditiously as possible; and maximizing use of all federal funding to supplement state-funded child protection efforts.
In January 2018, MDCPS launched statewide an intensive, in-home services program “in-CIRCLE” which provides at least 10 hours of in-home services to at-risk families. The goal is to resolve issues which, if left unaddressed, could deteriorate to the point that children would not be safe and must be taken into state custody. MDCPS staff, along with two non-profit subcontractors, work with the children and families to reduce/prevent trauma caused by removing children from their birth parent’s custody. In-Circle is provided through a contract with Canopy Children’s Services and Youth Villages.
Of the families receiving these services, 89 percent report the overall safety of their child or children has “significantly” improved; 78 percent say they are “very confident” they will use the skills they have learned to ensure their child stays in their home and 75% say the relationship with their child has “significantly improved.”
NOTE: As of 12/6/2018, there are 4,969 children in state custody. The number fluctuates daily.