Gartin Building Courtroom with the Great Seal of the State of Mississippi

Availability of indigent parent representation increases

October 7, 2019

Six counties in north Mississippi will begin providing attorneys to represent indigent parents in abuse and neglect proceedings in Youth Courts.

Alcorn, Itawamba, Lee, Pontotoc, Tishomingo and Union counties will pay half of the cost of parent representation in their counties for Youth Court and the state will pay half, said Senior Chancellor Jacqueline Mask of Tupelo. Five lawyers will handle cases in six counties.

In south Mississippi, indigent parents in Perry, Stone and Jones counties will gain access to a parent representation attorney working for the Mississippi Center for Legal Services through an arrangement with the Office of State Public Defender, said State Defender Andre´ de Gruy.

The new lawyers started work at the beginning of October.

Providing legal representation for parents who can’t afford to hire a lawyer promotes the likelihood of keeping families together and avoiding foster care if parents are willing to show the court that they can provide a safe environment at home. The courts and the Department of Child Protection Services place strong emphasis on making reasonable efforts to keep families together.

Judge Mask, a member of the Commission on Children’s Justice and co-chair of the Access to Justice Commission, said, “When parents have an attorney, they have an advocate who will assist them in working through the court system to bring the case to completion for the best interest of their children.”

Chancellor Rhea Sheldon of Hattiesburg, co-chair of the Commission on Children’s Justice, said, “In cases in which we have a parent representative involved, we see a quicker completion of the case,”

Attorneys are available to represent indigent parents in 23 counties, said Jurist in Residence John N. Hudson of Natchez. Some counties pay for their own programs, and some utilize a combination of state dollars, county matching funds, a federal court improvement grant and private foundation contributions from Casey Family Programs and the Kellogg Foundation.

Boards of Supervisors in Itawamba, Pontotoc, Tishomingo and Union counties each authorized spending $6,000 for parent representation, with state funds matching that, Judge Mask said. Alcorn County will spend $9,000, and Lee County, $19,500, with a state funding match.

Judge Mask said, “The local boards of supervisors realize the need to keep our families together by providing parents with representation in Youth Court.”

The availability of matching state funding made providing parent representation possible, said Lee County Chancery Clerk and County Administrator Bill Benson. “It would create another full time expensive position for the county if we did not have this access to state funding. It’s a tremendous help.”

The Legislature appropriated $278,500 statewide for parent representation in the 2020 fiscal year that began July 1. The 2020 fiscal year is the third year that the Legislature has provided funding. State funding for the two previous years was $200,000 a year.

Pilot programs which began in 2012 relied heavily on Casey Family Programs for funding. The Kellogg Foundation added funding in 2017. The Parent Representation Task Force continues to urge lawmakers to increase public funding to sustain and expand parent representation.