Family First Initiative leaders discuss problems, solutions to helping needy families

August 31, 2018

An organization working to prevent child neglect gathered at the Supreme Court on Friday to discuss strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats to their efforts.

Justice Dawn Beam and First Lady Deborah Bryant, co-chairs of the Family First Initiative, met for about three hours with about 20 members of the group’s Advisory Council to review the progress of six pilot programs across the state and reinforce plans to move the effort forward.

“It’s exciting, and we have to keep this momentum going,” Justice Beam said.

The Family First Initiative aims to prevent child neglect and reduce the number of children who are removed from their homes and placed in foster care. The program, founded under the direction of the Commission on Children’s Justice, seeks to assist struggling families, improve family stability and create safer home environments for children.

Poverty is at the root of much of the neglectful conditions that bring children and families into peril. In Mississippi, 31 percent of children live in poverty.

Justice Beam said, “We were born in a state in which poverty was here when we got here. It is time for us to say ‘We are not going to live that way any more.’ ”

That means educating the public about the magnitude of the problems and the needs of the poor, enlisting the aid of communities willing to help, identifying and bringing together service providers, letting those in need know that help is available, and guiding them to it.

“Most folks are just oblivious,” Justice Beam said. “If they knew we had so many hurting people, they would step up.”

“They are our kids. It’s our state. It’s our mess and we’ve got to lift the least of those up,” Justice Beam said.

Pilot programs launched with meetings during the past two weeks in Meridian, Poplarville, Tupelo, Cleveland and Gautier laid the groundwork for local community involvement. Justice Beam, who logged about 1,700 miles of travel to the pilot programs, said each group had a different dynamic, but all approached problem solving efforts with enthusiasm and commitment.

Another core group is working to launch a pilot program soon in the metro area of Hinds, Madison and Rankin counties.

Having a judicial system that is supportive of the effort is a benefit, said Commissioner of Child Protection Services Jess H. Dickinson, a former Justice of the Supreme Court.

Local judges, government leaders and representatives of non-profits and faith-based organizations form the leadership of the pilot programs. They are working as a community to identify and bring together local resources in a stronger network, and make sure that people who need help get access to those resources.

Connecting people in need is one of the challenges. Although great resources already exist, people working to help the needy may not know about them, said Rev. Neddie Winters, president of Mission Mississippi. There’s also needless duplication; another organization comes along and creates services that are already available.

The group on Friday talked about overcoming barriers such as funding, politics, regionalism, racial division, fear, and a lack of understanding of what it’s like to be poor.

Supreme Court Justice David Ishee said, “Mississippi is divided in so many ways. Race is the one that hits us the hardest.”

Justice Beam said, “We need to be honest with each other. I think this is the perfect opportunity to tear down all these barriers.”

Sen. Sally Doty said cost always is a barrier. Court of Appeals Judge Latrice Westbrooks said, “Some programs are under-funded, or not funded at all.”

The federal Family First Prevention Services Act, FFPSA, which went into effect in February, redirects some federal spending to child abuse and neglect prevention in an effort to obviate the need for children to enter foster care.

Bryant and Justice Ishee said funding neglect prevention is an investment that will save money in the future. Bryant said it’s akin to the Chinese proverb of teaching a person to fish rather than giving him a fish. “This has to be a hand up, not a handout,” Justice Ishee said.

Resident Jurist John Hudson said the hopelessness of poverty traps people. Justice Ishee said people entrenched in poverty “have come to accept it that they are going to be poor” because generations before them were poor.

Adding to the difficulty is that people who want to help don’t understand what it’s like to be poor. “We do not understand poverty. We think we do,” said Sean Milner, executive director of the Baptist Children’s Village. The attorney and former Ethics Commission member grew up in Baptist Children’s Village, living in its campuses for 18 years.

That lack of understanding creates biases about what may or may not be neglect. “We are judgmental from our own norms,” said retired Special Assistant Attorney General Patti Marshall.

The group discussed how to make it easier for needy people to access services.

Agencies which provide resources can be intimidating to those seeking services, Marshall said. It’s hard for some people to even get to those offices, and it’s tough to talk to strangers about personal difficulties.

People looking for help sometimes get passed from agency to agency or department to department, said Supreme Court Law Clerk Whitney Thrasher. As a member of Justice Beam’s staff, she gets calls from people frustrated at being redirected time after time.

First Lady Bryant said there needs to be a culture change in state agency workers. “They need to go about it with compassion.”

Top level strategies have to filter down to the agency workers tasked to carry them out, said Katrina Phillips, Rankin County Youth Court judicial assistant to Judge Thomas Broome.

Dickinson said he is working on training social services professionals.

“You have to love the people you are serving,” said Alberstein Johnson-Pickett of the Department of Mental Health. “Be respectful of them. Talk to them at a level they understand.”

Justice Beam said part of the solution is also taking services to people. “We need to meet them where they are, where we show up and come to them with grace. We’ve never done government like that.”