Funding sought to sustain and expand parent representation

March 20, 2018

Hinds County has seen a 30 percent decrease in court ordered removals of children from parents’ custody in Youth Court cases of suspected abuse and neglect during the past year.

Having attorneys to represent the parents in Hinds County has made a difference with a decrease in removals from parent custody, Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Dawn Beam told Mississippi legislators at a Feb. 28 breakfast at the Capitol. “Children are still being protected,” said Justice Beam, co-chair of the Commission on Children’s Justice. Parent attorneys help guide them to make home and lifestyle changes that will allow them to provide a safe environment for their children.

Eleven counties in Mississippi now provide court-appointed attorneys to represent indigent parents who may face removal of children from their custody. Pearl River County is proposed to soon become the 12th county offering parent representation. The private non-profit Casey Family Programs is working with state court representatives to finalize an agreement to provide matching funds for Pearl River County.

A pilot program to provide indigent parents with attorneys began in Adams, Forrest and Rankin counties in 2012; Harrison County joined the pilot program in 2013. The program has since expanded to include Bolivar, DeSoto, Hancock, Hinds and Jackson counties. Funding has relied heavily on grants. Lafayette County pays for its own program. Before the pilot project began in 2012, Madison County was the only county known to regularly provide county funded parent representation. That practice dated back to at least the early 1980s.

The number of counties has grown with the help of Casey Family Programs, the Kellogg Foundation and the willingness of county boards of supervisors to provide matching funds.

The Parent Representation Task Force has urged state funding to sustain and expand parent representation.

The Legislature in 2016 authorized Youth Court judges to appoint parent representation attorneys in child welfare cases, and the 2017 Legislature provided $200,000 funding for parent representation.

Judges and child welfare advocates are asking the Legislature to increase public funding to$500,000 to sustain and expand parent representation.

“It’s what works. We know it works,” said Rankin County Youth Court Judge Tom Broome, who was among the first Youth Court judges to appoint parent representation attorneys.

In Hinds County, the 30 percent decrease in removals of children from parents’ custody bucks a five-year statewide upward trend in placement of children in foster care. Five years ago, about 3,500 Mississippi children were living in foster care statewide, said Christopher Church, Law and Policy Director at the Children's Law Center at the University of South Carolina School of Law. On March 2, there were 5,607 children in state custody, according to the Department of Child Protection Services. That’s a 60 percent increase statewide of children removed from the custody of their parents.

Attorney Kelly Williams began representing indigent parents in Hinds County Youth Court in February 2017, and Chad King became a parents’ attorney in March 2017. They provide a voice for indigent parents facing the threat of Youth Court-ordered removal of children from their custody due to allegations of abuse and neglect. They work with the parents to obtain services that will assist those parents in safely caring for their children.

Hinds County Youth Court removed 187 children from parents’ custody between Feb. 1, 2017, and Jan. 31, 2018, the first year that parent representatives were at work. That compares to 268 children removed from parents’ custody during the previous 12 months without parent representation.

Other changes may also have influenced the 30 percent decrease in Hinds County, but the work of the parent representation attorneys is a significant factor.

The majority of removals involve neglect. Poverty is often one of the root causes of neglect.

“A lot of times, all they need is some services that Child Protection Services can offer” outside court, King said.

“You can address those issues and keep children out of (state) custody,” said Williams, the first attorney in Mississippi to be certified as a Child Welfare Law Specialist by the National Association of Counsel for Children.

King said, “That is preventing the trauma to children being removed from their homes.”

Parents represented by an attorney are able to provide the Youth Court with more information upon which to make a decision about whether the children will stay in the home or be removed to foster care.

Judge Broome said that having an attorney parent representative increases the likelihood that children are able to remain in the home. “It helps get a better picture of what life is like in the family: not only what problems may exist but it also helps point out the strengths and support that the family may have. Without parent representation, the court is often focused entirely on the deficits in the home as opposed to the entire picture. An advocate for the parent helps paint the entire picture in the home. It helps the court to better understand the totality of the circumstances.”

Judge Broome said, “Ultimately, the court is charged with looking out for the best interests of children, which is similar to what the parents are trying to do as well.”

It’s important for an attorney to get involved from the beginning of a case, parent representation attorneys and judges agree. Attorney involvement helps keep parents on track to do the things a judge has ordered so that they may be reunited with their children. Parent attorneys also help identify those parents who can’t be reunited with children. In those cases, the court and Child Protection Services can move more quickly toward another permanent placement including termination of parental rights and adoption.

Reaching permanency for the child faster – whether through family reunification, guardianship or termination of parental rights and adoption – saves the state substantial money that would be spent on foster care.

“That means less time that a child would remain in foster care or outside the home,” Judge Broome said. “Foster care is one of the most expensive options available to the courts.” Costs include board payments to foster parents as well as medical, dental and vision expenditures and associated Medicaid costs. Other costs include administrative and social worker salaries to handle the caseload.

“It is much better to make the small investment on the front end (with parent representation), which saves the state greatly on the back end by reducing the number of days in foster care. But perhaps the most important costs are not the financial costs. They are the toll on human beings,” said Judge Broome, chairman of the Parent Representation Task Force and Council of Youth Court Judge and co-chair of the Commission on Children’s Justice.

Foster care costs per child range from $640 to $5,000 per month, said Commissioner of Child Protection Services Jess H. Dickinson. “We are thoroughly in support of parent representation.”

When parents face the possibility of having their children removed from their custody, appointments of counsel for parents mean that those attorneys fight to keep children in their homes when CPS recommends removal. Having attorneys on both sides safeguards fairness.
“The point is these children and their parents are entitled to have a fair hearing of their case and it just doesn’t happen when parents are not represented,” Dickinson said.

Dickinson, a former Justice of the Supreme Court, questions whether allowing parents to go unrepresented is a violation of their constitutional rights.

Resident Jurist John Hudson of Natchez also has grave concerns about allowing parents who have the most to lose – custody of their children – to try to represent themselves in a court proceeding in which every other person is a lawyer or has a lawyer. Judge Hudson, who was Adams County Youth Court judge for 31 years, supervised the pilot parent representation program that began in Adams County in 2012.

Speaking at the Capitol on Feb. 28, Judge Hudson asked legislators to imagine the fear a parent faces walking into a courtroom alone the morning after Child Protection Services has taken away a child. Knowing little more than the location of the courthouse and the time to show up, the parent will have difficulty dealing with the legal complexities of a hearing.

“You want everyone that is a part of a judicial proceeding to be properly represented so that you have all the information to make the right decision as to what is in the best interest of the child,” Judge Hudson said. “You want everyone to be on as level a field as you can put them on.” Parent representation “provides critical due process.”

Bolivar County Youth Court began appointing attorney Chaka Smith to represent parents in April 2017. It’s given parents a voice and helped Youth Court hearings to move quicker, said Youth Court Judge Hunter Nowell. “It’s been a blessing to have her,” he said.

Unrepresented parents often feel intimidated in court. Facing questions from the judge, “they would just freeze up,” Nowell said. And in some cases which could result in child abuse charges in another court, he was uncomfortable having to question unrepresented parents, lest they incriminate themselves without an attorney.

In the Delta, most of the parents who come into Youth Court are indigent and qualify for the service of a parent representation attorney, Judge Nowell said.

Smith said that she provides a voice for her clients. “They want to be heard but they don’t know how to say what they need to say,” Smith said. “As a parent attorney, we are able to let them know they do have rights.”

Smith said she goes over court procedures with clients and works to find what may have caused their problem. Often it’s drug use.

Bolivar County and the Kellogg Foundation each contribute $12,500 to pay Smith’s salary.

In Jackson County, Youth Court Judge Sharon Sigalas has always appointed an attorney to represent indigent parents who are incarcerated but expected to get out of jail, parents who are minors and parents with an IQ below 80. The addition of a parent representation attorney in November 2017 increased the number of people who are represented in Youth Court.

“The parent representative is doing a good job of helping people wade through this process,” Judge Sigalas said. “I have seen visitation go a lot better. She is asking for more visitation and more meaningful visitation, whereas parents in the past were just glad to get what they could get.”

Judge Sigalas said her own thinking about removal and reunification shifted when she became a member of the Parent Representation Task Force. She’s become less inclined to order removal from parents’ custody. “In the past, I thought I was doing what was best, to take kids out of their environment. But we are doing harm by taking them. Here are these experts saying it’s hard on a child. Unless there is an eminent risk of harm, we should leave them in that environment and work with that family.”

Child Protection Services’ policy is to reunify parents with children if it can be done safely. CPS must make reasonable efforts to avoid removal, and when removal is necessary, to move toward permanency in placement. Deputy Commissioner for Child Welfare Tracy Malone emphasized reunification efforts. “How do we keep children safe at home with their own families, and how do we reduce the trauma of foster care?”

Adams County Youth Court Judge Walt Brown recounted a tough case that from the outset offered little hope for reunification. Termination of parental rights appeared to be the only answer when Adams County grandparents and children ages 3 and 4 were found wandering down a busy highway. It was cold and the children were barefooted with no jackets. The grandparents had the children because the mother, who had a serious drug problem, was incarcerated in Louisiana. The grandparents were arrested and charged with child neglect and possession of methamphetamine. The children were placed in Department of Human Services custody.

The Court appointed an attorney to represent the parents. DHS initially recommended reunification with the mother, but there were serious obstacles. The mother was pregnant and facing a probation revocation and more jail time. She tested positive for methamphetamine and benzodiazepine on multiple occasions. The father of the children was uncooperative with DHS and Youth Court and the Family Drug Court staff. In May 2014, the permanent plan changed to adoption and DHS tried to locate relative placement starting with an aunt in Tennessee.

The mother gave birth to her third child in September 2014. By November 2014, she was out of jail and began working with DHS, where she was deemed to be making good progress. She had a job and made plans to attend college. She had completed an alcohol and drug program while incarcerated, and attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. The father also expressed an interest in working with DHS. The permanency plan for the children changed to reunification with the mother.

The Adams County Family Drug Court worked with the parents to address their drug problems in the hope that they could be reunited as a family. The father made two attempts at drug rehabilitation, dropping out of the first program after two weeks, but successfully completing drug rehabilitation and participating in Family Drug Court. The mother made good progress in Family Drug Court, and got custody for a 90 day trial period, which went very well. She gave birth to her fourth child in August 2015, and graduated from Family Drug Court in September 2015. In December 2015, the Court ordered that the children would remain in the parents’ care and custody and DHS would maintain a supervision case until the father completed Family Drug Court, which he did shortly thereafter. The case was closed as a family reunification. The mother continues to attend community college, where she earned an invitation to join the Phi Beta Kappa honorary.

“Early on, it appeared there was no hope for reunification in this case,” Judge Brown said. “But as a result of the hard work and dedication of these parents, the Adams County Youth Court, Family Drug Court, the parent representative, DHS (now CPS), the guardian ad litem and CASA, these children remain reunited with their mother and appear to be thriving.”

Mimi Laver, director of National Alliance for Parent Representation, rated Mississippi as one of the two worst states in the country for parent representation about five years ago when she became involved as a representative of the American Bar Association in efforts to make changes. Mississippi was one of only two states that did not provide free legal representation to low income parents in Youth Court proceedings which may result in loss of custody of children.

The state is on the right trajectory, Laver said.

“When you have high quality representation, we see evidence that outcomes improve. Reunification should increase and removal decrease. Reunifications should be safer,” Laver said.

“We want to gradually move to a statewide system,” Judge Hudson said.

“It is not a panacea but it is a critical answer to making sure that courts are accountable and children are protected.”