Children’s Justice Commission: more state funds needed

The Commission on Children’s Justice is asking the Mississippi Legislature to increase the appropriation for legal representation of indigent and impoverished parents in Youth Courts.

For the past two years, the Legislature has provided $200,000 a year to pay for legal representation of parents facing the loss of custody of children due to allegations of abuse and neglect. Members of the Commission on Children’s Justice asked the Legislature to increase the funding to $512,000, an increase of $312,000.

Additional funding would allow more Youth Courts to provide attorneys for parent representation. Ten counties currently provide free parent representation paid for by the state appropriation as well as foundation and federal grants. Participating counties are Adams, DeSoto, Forrest, Hancock, Harrison, Jackson, Rankin, Hinds, Bolivar and Pearl River.

Jurist in Residence John Hudson of Natchez was an Adams County Court and Youth Court Judge for 31 years. In a presentation to legislators at the Capitol during the Three Branch Government Convening on Parent Representation, Hudson described the fear and bewilderment that parents face when they are drawn into court without a lawyer to explain the proceedings and advocate on their behalf.  As a judge, he feared that he wasn’t hearing the whole story because parents weren’t able to effectively represent themselves.

“Deep down in my soul, every time I was faced with that circumstance, my heart cried out that this is wrong. Everyone in that courtroom needs representation,” Hudson said.  With unrepresented parents, “I don’t get the whole story. We need all sides of the story so we can make the best decisions,” he said. “This is the right thing to do and it’s critical that every parent in our state has that opportunity.”

If additional funding is provided, the Parent Representation Task Force would be able to double the number of counties which provide parent representation to Youth Courts. New counties identified by the Task Force include Alcorn, Itawamba, Lamar, Lee, Marion, Monroe, Perry, Prentiss, Pontotoc, Tishomingo and Union counties.

“What you should realize is if a parent has an attorney, we might not have to remove a child from that home,” said Rankin County Youth Court Judge Thomas Broome, co-chair of the Commission on Children’s Justice. “With an attorney helping the parent to provide more information about their circumstances, “the judge can make a better decision  about whether that child can remain at home or what services are needed to enable that child to stay at home.”

The state saves on foster care spending when children are able to be safely reunited with their parents, Justice Dawn Beam, co-chair of the Commission on Children’s Justice, told the legislators.

“A small investment in parent representation results in a huge savings,” said Beam.

During the past year, the parent representation pilot counties saw significant decreases in foster care. In March 2017, children in foster care in those 10 counties totaled  2,794. Today, 600 fewer children are in foster care, for a total of 2,194 in the pilot counties.

Parent representation and a statewide commitment to increasing and speeding up adoptions contributed to the decrease in numbers of children in foster care.

Child Protection Services Commissioner Jess H. Dickinson told legislators that he fully supports parent representation and asked legislators to favorably consider the request for increased funding.

“Nobody wants an unfair result in a courtroom,” said Dickinson.

Dickinson added that having parents represented by attorneys in Youth Court proceedings “makes a significant contribution” to speeding up the process and moving cases to conclusion. Moving cases more quickly saves money.

“Having parent representation in many cases will prevent removal altogether,” said Dickinson. “It saves money. It eliminates a child being jerked out of their home when it doesn’t need to happen.”

In 2012, Adams, Forrest, and Rankin counties became the first pilot programs for parent representation with funding from Casey Family Programs and a federal grant from the Court Improvement Program. The pilots have expanded since then with hundreds of thousands of dollars from Casey Family Programs and CIP and the addition of grants from the Kellogg Foundation.

During the past year, Casey Family Programs provided $195,000, the Court Improvement Program provided $60,000 and the Kellogg Foundation contributed $57,000, for a total of $312,000. The Commission on Children’s Justice asked the Legislature to increase its appropriation by $312,000 to sustain the existing programs for parent representation so that foundation and grant funds can go to expanding parent representation programs into more counties.

Judge Broome added that additional state funding would allow leverage for more federal matching dollars from Washington.