Record 435 Hancock children now in DHS custody
By Geoff Belcher
Aug 19, 2014, 20:39
Hancock County officials first declared a "foster care crisis" in 2009, with a then-record 162 local children in state custody. As of this Tuesday, there were 435 Hancock County-area children in DHS custody, with no apparent end in sight.
"I've been in the middle of this for about a year-and-a-half," Hancock County Supervisor Tony Wayne Ladner said Thursday, "and I keep wondering, why, why, why?
"Hancock County has more kids in custody than some whole other regions of the state do, and when you look at Atlanta, Ga. – their population is 1.2 million – and we have more kids in custody than they do."
Ladner is part of an ad hoc committee of other local and state officials studying the problem, including Hancock County Supervisor Lisa Cowand, state Rep. Timmy Ladner, state Sen. Philip Moran, Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Randy Pierce, Hancock County Youth Court Judge Elise Deano, Hancock County DHS Supervisor Pamela Cross and state DHS Director Mark Smith.
"We're all trying to see where the main problem is," Ladner said.
Torn apart by meth
When the crisis began in 2009, then-Youth Court Judge Brehm Bell attributed much of the problem to the marked increase of people involved in producing, selling – and being arrested for – crystal methamphetamine.
"Crystal meth – it's every single day, we're dealing with crystal meth," Bell said at the time.
In May of this year, Deano said she is still dealing with the same issues. At that time, Deano said she had recently begun ordering tests for children taken from homes where the parents or guardians were arrested for methamphetamine possession or trafficking and made a startling discovery – nearly all of the children tested positive for meth.
"Some of them are at obscenely high levels," Deano said, "higher than adults who use meth on a regular basis."
It isn't that the children are using the substance themselves, she said – the meth residue in their homes is getting into their blood streams.
"Out of the 435 kids in custody," Chere Hayward, chief court administrator for Hancock County Youth Court said Tuesday, "at least 75 percent of those cases are drug-related, with methamphetamine being the most prevalent."
When the Mississippi Legislature made it a state law in 2011 that pseudophedrine could only be sold by prescription, the meth cases quickly shrank in number, Hayward said, but quickly went back up again once people realized they could just hop across the state line and buy it over-the-counter in Louisiana.
"I feel like the methamphetamine use is continuing to escalate," she said, "and we've seen a rise in heroin use, as well."
However, Hayward said the main reason the number of children in state custody has risen in the last two years is because the Mississippi Department of Human Services (DHS) has increased the number of social workers in Hancock County to combat the problem.
"There are more social workers investigating allegations ... in a timely manner," she said, where there weren't, in the past, which is a good thing."
Under state law, DHS workers investigate allegations of abuse and neglect and, if necessary, remove children from unsafe situations.
The youth court adjudicates the cases and works toward reunification of the families, if possible, and termination of parental rights if the underlying problems in the home continue.
"It is absolutely the last resort to remove children from a home," Hayward said, and is supposed to only be done when a child is at risk. Not all of the 435 children currently in DHS custody are actually in foster homes at the moment, she said. Some are actually with their own families, but with DHS and court oversight.
As of June 2014, the last month for which figures are available,there were also 87 separate cases, involving 204 children, which are considered "protection and prevention" cases. In other words, the court system and DHS are offering services, but the children have not actually been removed from their homes.
"That is 204 kids we were able to maintain in their homes and not remove to DHS custody," she said.
The best thing for the children
In recent weeks, several families have reached out to the Sea Coast Echo to try to find some resolution to their problems.
Some had children taken from their homes due to drug use. Others say their parental rights were terminated due to some other issue, such as unfounded allegations made by a neighbor or family member.
All of them share the trauma of having a child removed from the home and say they are now in a system that does not favor the poor.
One mother called the forcible removal of her child "human trafficking."
Once a child is removed from the home, the parent or parents must satisfy a number of criteria before being able to get their children back, including expensive rehabilitation and random drug testing -- which the parents themselves must often pay for out-of-pocket.
Another couple said they had to sell their trailer in order to pay for rehab, but still haven't yet been able to get their children back.
Terry Latham, executive director for Hope Haven, has been at the forefront of the battle since it started.
"Until we put some money in prevention services, this situation isn't going to change," Latham said Tuesday. "We need rehabilitation services here in this county. There's no place for the ever-increasing number of people who are being popped for drugs to get off drugs.
"We're going to see more children abused and neglected. The state legislature and DHS ... need to go ahead and make prevention and these services a part of what this agency does.
"All we're really dealing with is the aftermath. ... This whole issue is straining the resources of every public agency we have.
"It is a big problem, but you know what else was a big problem? Polio was a problem. Measles was a problem, but society did something about it. When people recognize that it impacts them, that it impacts the entire community, then we might do something about it. There has to be a comprehensive plan."