Andrea Sanders, the new commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services, on Thursday met with Hancock County Youth Court Judge Trent Favre to discuss “the county’s outstanding record of reducing the number of foster children lingering in Mississippi custody.”
Gov. Tate Reeves appointed Sanders in late 2020.
“As both an attorney and a social worker, Sanders leads the almost-1,500-member state child welfare agency in its mission to protect Mississippi’s most vulnerable children,” Sanders’ bio states.
Prior to her appointment, Sanders served as general counsel and principal deputy executive director for the Mississippi Department of Human Services, where she served on the senior leadership team and held administrative responsibility for the state’s subsidized childcare program, her bio states.
Sanders completed her Juris Doctorate at the Mississippi College School of Law in 2005 and worked as an attorney in private practice prior to joining the Mississippi Department of Human Services in 2017.
Sanders also has a master’s degree in social work from Tulane University; has worked as a clinical therapist with families, children, and adolescents; and as a hospital administrator in both the public and private sectors, her bio states.
“She is a wife, mother, and community volunteer,” her bio states. “Sanders’ lifelong commitment to learning through work is evidenced through her work as an adjunct professor at the Jackson State University School of Social Work, the University of Southern Mississippi School of Social Work, Hinds Community College, and as a parent mentor for low-income single mothers.”
Sanders said Thursday her background includes working with families in mental health care, where she said she treated “numerous” children from CPS.
“The theme is the same,” she said. “We have the same families with the same problems and the resulting trauma to children. So my life’s work has really been addressing systems within the state that impact children.”
Sanders said she also spent 10 years working within the court system.
“So that combination of clinical needs in families and clinical social work intervention with that court experience, I think, is at least going to put me into a position where I understand the nature of the challenges that this agency faces,” Sanders said. “Since I got there, I have been doing what social workers often call a clinical intake assessment of the entire agency. I’ve done a lot of listening.”
Sanders said Favre was her fifth youth court judge to meet with. She said she has also met with the Supreme Court.
“I’ve also listened to a lot of foster parents and adoptive parents,” she said. “And I’m concerned by the things that I hear, but I’m also very encouraged. The Supreme Court has already begun an initiative to help train judges that are dealing specifically with children in families in trauma, from a more trauma-centered, hope-centric approach. Judge Favre is a shining example of how that can work. Our staff and the court work together and also acknowledge what we already know. The children that are in the courtroom are there because they’ve been exposed to deep trauma sometimes. So we want our systems to help them, rather than inflict more trauma. That is the focus we will be moving forward with.”
Sanders said she was eager to speak with Favre about his work in Hancock County.
“When we make this kind of impact on young children, I think the long lasting implication for our state as a whole is enormous,” Sanders said
Gov. Phil Bryant appointed Favre in January 2018.
At that time, there were 389 Hancock County children in custody, Favre said.
As of Feb. 1, there are 65 children in custody.
Favre said Thursday that collaboration, such as the one with MDCPS, is “key,” and he made strengthening those relationships a priority in his early days on the bench.
“Also, establishing a different demeanor in the courtroom and making sure that parents realize that this is an opportunity for them to change and have help and resources there to help them change,” Favre said. “One of the things that I like to think is ‘I’m no better than anyone else.’ I’m a person, have my own faults, and hopefully self-aware and working through my own issues. These people have to do it in a public setting. That’s humiliating to have your life’s issues poured in front of absolute strangers. So we need to be sensitive to that and realize that parents do have a load of shame and a myriad of other issues when they come to court. We want to reach out a hand to them. We want them to understand that we care about them, we love them, and that we are really interested in a good outcome for them.”
The trauma that children experience when they are removed from their parents leaves a “long-lasting impression on them, on their actual brain development, as well,” Favre said.
“So we expect that there would be milestones that the children would reach they exhibit behaviors which are manifestations of the trauma that they sustained,” Favre said.
Some of those behaviors will start to manifest when a child is about eight years old, he added.
“In a lot of instances, people characterize that as bad behavior,” he said. “What we would rather people see is that’s a communication. Behavior is a communication. And because of the issues with their brain development and the trauma that they’ve been through, there’s a certain response that those children need. So what we’re trying to do is make sure that everyone in our child welfare system is prepared to work with children who have gone through trauma to develop tools that bridge the gap so that we can work with them effectively.”
Favre said he utilizes some of those techniques in the courtroom, which help to calm parents and help them understand that “we are a court restoration.”
“We are here to help them,” he said. “Because we believe that children belong with their parents and children belong with their parents.”
Favre describes his court room as “family-style” with one table.
“We want to transmit the idea to them that this is a team approach,” Favre said. “It’s not adversarial. So, I remind parents to look around the room, see who’s here. There will be the support for those parents. I try to speak in words that are encouraging and also diffusing.”
Learn more about the Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services at www.mdcps.ms.gov.
The child abuse and neglect hotline is 1-800-222-8000.