Hancock County Judge Trent Favre on Tuesday presented his annual State of the Youth Court Address during the Hancock County Board of Supervisors meeting.
Favre began his address with a set of statistics. In January 2018, when Favre took the bench, there were 389 children in custody. In January 2019, there were 165 children in custody. In January 2020, there are 108 children in custody.
"That's a 73 percent reduction over a two-year period," Favre said. "You will probably realize that we still have a lot of progress to be made. We've come a long way, but there's still a lot of work to be done. In two years, we have been able to reduce the number of kids in custody and when you look at the 72 percent reduction, that's just looking at Jan. 1, 2018 number and the number today, that's the 72 percent reduction. What you need to keep in mind is that as we were working through the backlog, we were still taking children in at the same time and processing those cases. We were working old cases and new cases and the approach that I took was to work aggressively new cases forward so that we could get to where we are today."
Of the 108 children in custody, 34 of those are on a reunification cycle and working with parents to reunify the family, Favre said.
"There are strict timelines in our statutes so if a child is under the age of three, we have six months to work with that family," he said. "For children over the age of three, it's one year. It's important to adhere to these timelines because children need permanency so we need to make sure we're moving forward so children can either be reunified with their parents or a family member or move on to the adoption process."
There are 28 pending TPR or termination of parental rights cases, Favre said, meaning if the "parents do not do what they're supposed to do within the time period, then we move to termination of parental rights."
There have been 40 TPR cases and are waiting for adoption, he said. There are six in APPLA or Another Planned Permanent Living Arrangement, he said, which are children who have not been adopted and the program prepares them for adulthood.
Favre said that youth court staff meet with the families in the reunification cycle on a monthly basis.
However, Favre said that "our numbers are still off for a county our size," in relation to statewide numbers.
With regard to the number of children in custody, Favre said the number for a county the size of Hancock should be in the "60 to 80 range."
Of the 40 TPR cases, 18 children are expected to be adopted in the next 30 to 90 days, Favre said.
According to data from CPS, Favre said, Hancock County ranks 11th in the state for the number of children in custody.
Favre said that there has been a reduction in the number of cases referred to TPR. In 2019, 19 children were referred, he said.
"Hopefully the number of TPR will decrease," Favre said. "We want our reunification number to increase. But I will tell you, after talking about this with judges throughout the state, if you're taking fewer kids into custody, that means you're taking the tougher cases, which means it's going to be harder to reunify."
Favre said that one of the reasons for the continued decrease in numbers can be attributed to the nation and state's Safe at Home Initiative, which provides in-home services instead of "removal due to trauma to child."
"The goal is to keep children with their parents while we work with them," Favre said. "So if a report comes into CPS, it's investigated the same way it's always been. CPS has to determine whether or not there's a safety risk. If the child can be safely maintained in the home and provided services, then we can prevent custody."
There are currently 75 children in in-home cases, Favre said.
Another reason for the decline is more adoptions, with 67 in Hancock County, he said.
"I think another reason for the decline is adherence to statutory timelines that move the cases through the system," he said. "We have month-to-month hearings, this provides accountability both ways, parents have a voice in the courtroom and they're eager to be in the courtroom on a month-to-month basis instead of wondering what's going on for three to six months at a time. The law only requires us to meet with those parents every six months."
Favre said that family representation, an attorney, in the courtroom and access to local resources such as CASA, Hope Haven, and Brenda's House have also aided in the decrease of numbers.
"We have a lot of resources that other counties don't have," he said. "And we are steadily becoming a model for other counties in this state."
Favre also provided compliance percentage, which is calculated on nine different factors dictated by the state.
"In FY '16-'17, our court system had 57 percent compliance rate," he said. "In '17-18, half of my year, our compliance rate went up to 72 percent. One of the issues I found, as I corrected issues, if I corrected it in my year, it was a non-compliance in my year. For the '18-'19 year, we went up to 86 percent and that was number eight in the state. Through the six months of this year (FY '19-20) we're at a 97.5 compliance rate."
Favre went through some of the year's highlights, including the unveiling of Halls of Hope; the conversion of Brenda's House Children's Emergency Center to Brenda's House Family Center; the county's first Reunification Day event; and a courtroom book program for children.
Favre said he was asked to speak at a national conference in Minneapolis, Minn. He said that Dr. Jerry Milner, the acting commissioner of the Administration for Children and Families of the U.S. Government and who oversees the Family and Youth Services Bureau and Children's Bureau, spoke about "everything that's going wrong in our country in child welfare."
"All the things we know about and are trying to fix throughout the country and he said 'but there's hope,' and 'for example in Hancock County, Mississippi," he said. "They began to tell our story. It was a huge honor to be recognized on a national stage and be able to present later that day. I was asked to speak about engaging with parents in the courtroom. This is where the rubber meets the road, I believe for our court's success, and that is making sure that we talk to parents in a civil manner, respectfully and let them know that we care. That's what they need to hear and I believe, that's what's making a difference in our courtroom."
Milner described the work in Hancock County as the "Mississippi Miracle."
Favre said another factor in achieving "good outcomes" in staff training which includes: Monthly staff meetings with specific training on youth court rules; individual review of positions; Guardian Ad Litem training; CPS Practice Model Learning Cycle; Court Administrator's conference; judge's school in Nevada; among others.
Favre also said that youth court also partners with several community organizations and utilizes their resources for families including: CPS; CASA; the Multi-Disciplinary Team; engagement with faith-based organizations; meetings with school leadership; counselors, and school resource officers; engagement with local law enforcement; meetings with healthcare providers; meetings with drug testing vendors; presentations to grand juries; Gulf Coast Mental Health; Partners at the Table (a monthly lunch with community stakeholders); Hancock Resource Center; the Gulf Coast Christian Women's Job Corps; and Families First for Mississippi.
Several representatives from the above organizations spoke about the various service they offer.
Pam Cross, regional director for CPS, said one of the "best" standards that Hancock County has reached is that "we now have one of the lowest turnover rates in the whole state of Mississippi."
"As our numbers have decreased in Hancock County, our numbers of children in custody, our need for case workers has decreased as well," she said. "We now have a fully-staffed adoption unit in Hancock County, and a fully-staffed licensure unit in Hancock County."
Cross spoke on Hancock County's identification as the "Mississippi Miracle."
"As I've done my reflection this past weekend, I thought what makes us that Mississippi Miracle, what led to that," she said. "It's really everything you just heard today. It's a true partnership that has made the Mississippi Miracle. Everything from the board of supervisors and supporting the recommendations from the task force. The creation of the county court system. The partnership with the court. The partnership with this community. You just heard from a lot of those service providers here in this community who have pulled together to make sure that we're not traumatizing children any more than we have to."
Favre ended by speaking about some of the iniatives including: finalizing the Children in the Court initiative (a protocol for children in the courtroom); continue training; and explore options to become a treatment court."
Favre thanked the board of supervisors for its continued support of the youth court.
He added that he believes the key to the youth court's continued success is that "parents need to be heard and they need to feel like the process is fair. And so even if the outcome isn't what they want, as long as they were treated with dignity and respect and felt like the process was fair, then we can alleviate a lot of the angry issues."
Favre said that a parent recently called the youth court office to "ask for help."
"That is our goal," Favre said. "If we can have parents reach out for help before they need it, before things get bad and know that we can be trusted to be a plan in place to help you keep your children and better yourself, we win."