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Analysis: Effort to aid families could be key in Mississippi

July 28, 2019

After a year of pilot programs, the leaders of an initiative to strengthen troubled Mississippi families say they are off to a promising start.

The Mississippi Families First Initiative is part of a nationwide movement to change the traditional system of child welfare, which reacts and intervenes after a child is harmed, into a system that tries to cut risks and prevent harm.

The initiative, led by state Supreme Court Justice Dawn Beam and First Lady Deborah Bryant, has set up programs in eight counties. Those programs are trying different approaches, with the idea that the initiative will evaluate what works before seeking to roll out the program statewide.

“A ground game for prevention is the key,” said Beam, after the program issued a report to the state Supreme Court last week. “For too many years, we’ve been reactionary. When we removed children, it oftentimes traumatizes them in a way that we have no idea.”

In Lee County, officials are holding monthly legal clinics to deal with issues including housing, adoption and child custody. Bolivar County’s group is providing help to people looking to expunge criminal records, helping them find jobs. In Pearl River County, a county resource coordinator is helping to direct services to families in need. That county is also trying to provide support and child care for parents attending school and job training. In Madison County, the group is exploring coordinating opioid addiction treatment with mental health services for caregivers and children. Several other counties are also considering services using a whole-family model.

The initiative says that of the 4,700 children who were in state custody as of May, it was neglect and not abuse that typically drove intervention. State figures show 62% of children were removed for neglect, with top reasons including parental drug abuse, inadequate housing, and a caretaker’s inability to cope.

Mississippi has another, more specific reason to want to cut the number of children in foster care — the long-running Olivia Y lawsuit. That suit, where the plaintiffs are currently asking a federal judge to declare the state in contempt and appoint an outsider to run the state’s foster care system, revolves around poor conditions faced by children in foster care.

The emphasis on strengthening families will only increase if Mississippi is to comply with a new federal law. Congress passed the Family First Prevention Services Act in 2018, shifting resources to encourage states to address problems before a child needs to be removed from home. The Mississippi effort dovetails with the law, although they’re not the same despite having the same name.

The law enables states to use federal money previously earmarked for foster care and adoption support to instead aid parents without separating families. Those services include in-home parenting skills, substance abuse treatment and mental health care. They’re also supposed to be evidence-based, meaning there’s some proof that they are effective.

Significantly, the law also sharply limits the amount of federal money that can be used to pay for foster care in group homes. States will only get federal money to place a child for two weeks, with some exceptions. For longer stays, a judge must periodically approve continued use of a group home. Those changes are likely to mean big changes at Mississippi’s group homes, many of which are religiously affiliated. However, while most of the law takes effect in October, states can delay the group home changes as late as Oct. 2021. Mississippi is among many states that have indicated it will delay, although federal money can’t be diverted to prevention services until then.

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Jeff Amy has covered politics and government for The Associated Press in Mississippi since 2011. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jeffamy .

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