[Mb-civic] Gross Neglect By BOB HERBERT
michael at michaelbutler.com
Mon Mar 13 11:58:46 PST 2006
The New York Times
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March 13, 2006
By BOB HERBERT
When it comes to providing desperately needed services for children who have
been beaten, starved, sexually abused or otherwise mistreated, the state of
Mississippi offers what is probably the worst-case scenario.
Mississippi gets more than 25,000 allegations of abuse and neglect each
year, and it can't handle them.
Way back in 1992 the Child Welfare League of America issued a blistering
report about the backward state of affairs in Mississippi. The league warned
that vulnerable children would suffer irreparable harm if steps weren't
taken to reduce caseloads, increase staffing and locate additional foster
care and adoptive homes.
In 2001, Sue Perry, the state's director of family and children's services,
warned top state officials that "the crisis needs to be addressed by
whomever has the power to rectify the situation before a tragedy occurs."
She quit the following year, saying in a letter to then-Governor Ronnie
Musgrove that the system was starved for resources and had deteriorated so
badly that protecting the children had become "an impossible task." At the
time she wrote the letter, Ms. Perry was being directed to abolish 88
additional full-time positions.
She told the governor that Mississippi's children had been placed at such
great risk that some would die. "I am sorry to inform you," she said, "that
this has already happened in DeSoto County. A 19-month-old child was
brutally beaten by his stepfather in a case known to this agency."
Warnings don't get much louder, but the honchos in Mississippi were in no
mood to listen. These were poor kids, after all. What claim did they have on
the state's resources?
Two years after Ms. Perry resigned, Gov. Haley Barbour acknowledged that the
state's Department of Human Services had "collapsed for lack of management
and a lack of leadership." Collapsed. That was the governor's word. Was he
serious? Was he planning to do something about it? You must be joking. He
made the comment as he was announcing additional budget cuts for the agency.
When a state abandons its obligation to care for its vulnerable residents,
the last best hope has tended to be the courts. Enter Children's Rights, an
advocacy organization based in New York. Over the years, it has filed
lawsuits in a number of states that have led to the overhaul of failing
child welfare systems, and it is currently pressing a class-action suit on
behalf of abused and neglected children in Mississippi.
The situation in Mississippi has become so bad, said Marcia Robinson Lowry,
the executive director of Children's Rights, that the state deliberately
(and unlawfully) diverts children from the child welfare system by failing
to investigate reports of abuse and neglect.
"Mississippi has one of the worst child welfare systems we have ever seen,"
Ms. Lowry said.
Mississippi doesn't even try to fully staff its Division of Family and
Children Services. Caseloads for child protective workers are absurdly high.
Where national standards call for a maximum of 12 to 17 cases per worker
(depending on the types of cases involved), there are counties in
Mississippi where the average caseload for workers is 100 and beyond.
According to the lawsuit, the average caseload in Lamar County is 130.
In that kind of system, kids suffer and may even die without ever coming
close to the attention of the authorities.
The kids who do come to the attention of the system frequently get short
shrift. Some are placed in settings that are as dangerous or more
dangerous than their original environments.
How bad is Mississippi? In the papers compiled by Children's Rights for its
lawsuit is a reference to testimony by a key official of the Department of
Human Services, who said the state would "not necessarily investigate"
whether sexual abuse had occurred if a "little girl" contracted a sexually
If you don't understand that a "little girl" with a sexually transmitted
disease is a raging signal to take immediate steps to protect the child and
to launch a criminal investigation, then you should not be allowed anywhere
near vulnerable children.
This is the sort of thing Children's Rights is trying to correct with its
lawsuit. It seeks nothing less than to compel the governor and other
officials to meet their obligation to protect and care for the most
vulnerable children in their state. And that can only be done by
transforming a system that at the moment can best be described as grotesque.
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