By Bob Herbert
The New York Times
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 transmitted disease.
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.