Kathy Lohr, NPR
DeMarcus Hysten is a named plaintiff in the lawsuit. He has been in the foster care system since 1991, when he was 5.
Clayton Milar has been a ward of Mississippi's foster care system since age 2. He writes to the court about his experiences in the system.
Howard and Teresa Pitts are foster parents who have been unable to adopt the child that they've raised for more than five years. They write about their thwarted efforts.
A 2006 report from the Child Welfare League analyzed problems in Mississippi's foster care system. It found that the system was understaffed, case workers were overworked and under-trained, and efforts to serve children were hampered by a lack of resources.
For more than a decade, Mississippi's child welfare system has been failing. According to Children's Rights, a child advocacy group in New York, there are 10,000 documented reports of abuse and neglect every year.
Children's Rights filed suit three years ago. In federal court Thursday, a partial settlement with Mississippi was approved — the first step in trying to repair a foster care system that has reached its breaking point.
The settlement agreement submits Mississippi to a federal court order to come up with a specific plan to fix the problems. The state has set aside $12 million in additional funding this year to help. But many child-welfare advocates say it will take much more to turn around a system that is so troubled.
The severity of the problem is astounding. The state hasn't met federal standards — or even its own state standards – on caring for foster children for more than a decade. Cases of abuse and neglect often involve children who are unable to get the medical care or psychological help they need. There are heartbreaking stories of children left in homes too long who ended up getting hurt — or worse.
"We are aware of several incidents of children being killed," says Eric Thompson of Children's Rights. "One 4-month-old last summer was murdered by his parents after being left in the home by the Department of Human Services, who had an open case on that family. Another teenager was killed while in a group home."
The state doesn't track these incidents, so, Thompson says, no one really knows how many children have died or were seriously injured while they were in the state foster-care system. What is easier to document are the thousands of children who didn't get the attention or treatment they needed and were left struggling in the system for years.
Long History of Neglect
DeMarcus Hysten is a named plaintiff in the lawsuit. He has been in the foster care system since 1991, when he was 5. That's when he and his two older sisters were taken away from his mother because she couldn't take care of them.
"The Department of Human Services, they drove by the house several times, not expecting anyone to live there because the house was so abandoned-looking," Hysten recalls of life in his mother's home.
The state first moved Hysten to his grandmother's house, but she didn't have utilities. Then he endured a series of 28 moves, including temporary foster placements: group homes, emergency shelters, mental health facilities and, by the time he was 16, a home for juvenile offenders — even though Hysten had not committed any crime.
"I'm in there with sexual offenders, vandalizers, people who have assault records, stolen stuff. I'm talking about real mini-criminals — these are little criminals that I'm with," he says.
The inappropriate placement and constant moves left Hysten alone and, many times, scared. He never found a permanent home. Now 20 years old and in his first year of college, he says he is still dealing with the consequences.
"And you know what? It feels like, because of that, there is no stability in my life now," he says. "Big trust issues — that's another thing I have a big problem with, because of all the people in my past. I've been hurt so many times — like putting all my trust into a home, putting all my trust into someone that I thought would do me right and would end up doing me wrong."
Now he has decided to join the Army.
A Dysfunctional System
Attorneys for the 3,500 children in the state foster-care system say one reason Hysten moved so often and stayed in foster care his entire childhood is because there are not enough social workers to take care of children.
According to the state's own 2006 report, there is pervasive failure to protect and serve the children in its custody. The study showed 12 percent of the children were mistreated, and many of the incidents were not investigated; 11 percent were moved 10 or more times. Some 84 percent received no medical exam within the first week as required; some never got medical treatment. More than 20 percent have spent half or more of their lives in state custody.
Fifteen years ago, the Child Welfare League of America reported that Mississippi's foster care system was dysfunctional. The group's latest report is no different.
"They found that in Warren County, Miss., the average case worker carried 113 cases per worker," says plaintiff's Attorney Melody MacAnally. "In Hancock County, Miss., one case worker carried an average of 120 cases."
MacAnally says the national standard is for case workers to handle no more than 12 to 15 cases.
"You can look at those numbers and see why obviously they're just overworked," she says. "They're not able to give enough attention and time and planning to deal with all the children in their care. They're overworked."
A Turnaround Plan
The state of Mississippi and Children's Rights have reached a partial settlement in the case. Officials have agreed not to contest that children's constitutional rights have been violated.
"We'd known for quite some time that we were going to have to spend additional money," says Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood. "But it unfortunately it took a lawsuit to force the state to do what we should have all along."
Hood calls it a landmark settlement, in part because the state will not spend additional money on a trial fighting the charges but instead will work to come up with standards and a plan to turn the system around.
"We certainly owe a duty to these children, who have already been abused in life, to take good care of them," he said. "So I think we'll look back and say we did the right thing, and we spent the money — we spent what it took to fix our problem."
Linda West, head of Mississippi Families for Kids, says real change depends on the will of policymakers. For so many years, she says, officials let the foster care system decline to dangerous levels. West says now it is time for those in power to realize that they need to make a commitment to the state's most vulnerable population.
"I think it's a lack of understanding what's best for children and a lack of understanding that without families and children, we don't have much of a state," she says, adding, "All the casino funding and all the children's museums and all of these things are not going to benefit us if we don't take care of our kids."