October 27, 2020

State child protection workers suspended in wake of deadly abuse case

Two workers with the Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services (MDCPS) have been placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of a deadly child abuse investigation in Natchez, WLBT-TV in Jackson reports.

The station reports what it described as a frontline worker/investigator and their supervisor were suspended.

The action stems from the death last week of 4-year-old Armani Hill and the severe injury of her sister, 3-year-old Lailah Hill in Natchez.

Police say the pair was severely abused by their mother’s boyfriend, James Christopher Anderson. He’s been charged with two counts of felony abuse. The children’s mother, Lakeisha Jones, is charged with two counts of depriving the children of necessities.

Natchez Police Chief Walter Armstrong said during the investigation, police learned the MDCPS had been contacted and opened two cases for the children due to previous injuries before the incident Wednesday and both cases were recently closed.

MDCPS issued a statement Friday night saying workers in MDCPS were saddened to learn of the case.

“MDCPS has received two prior reports of abuse involving the same children in this case since December 2018,” the statement reads. “In both instances, the agency investigated the reporters’ concerns and the evidence did not support substantiation of the allegations made.

“Although our investigator was unable to substantiate the allegations made in either of the two reports, MDCPS nevertheless opened an ‘in-home’ case and made repeated face-to-face visits with the children and family from January to May 2019. At no time during that monitoring period did any safety concerns arise or were any new concerns of child abuse or harm noted. The in-home case involving the family was closed on June 4 after MDCPS staff met with both of the children, the mother and the grandmother.

“The children involved in this case were never placed into MDCPS custody.

Although directly unrelated to this case as the two Hill children were not in foster care, MDCPS has been under fire and the state’s foster care system may soon face takeover.

The stage is set for a long-delayed showdown over whether a federal judge should appoint an outsider to run Mississippi’s Department of Child Protective Services, after a report Tuesday showed the state’s foster care system still isn’t meeting standards outlined in a court decree.

At stake is the welfare of nearly 5,000 children who have been taken into state custody because they’re believed to be in danger at home.

Marcia Lowry, the lawyer who has been suing the state for 15 years on behalf of a girl known only as Olivia Y, said she intends to ask Senior U.S. District Judge Tom Lee to find the state in contempt of a previous settlement order.

“I think the facts are very bad and I don’t think the state can be trusted because kids are being hurt,” she told The Associated Press in a phone interview. Lowry said she would file a renewed motion for contempt in coming days.

Department leaders, though, said they’re making progress, adding an infusion of $15 million in state funding beginning July 1 will allow them to solve many problems.

“Much good is about to bear fruit in terms of greatly improved services to children,” Commissioner Jess Dickinson, a former state Supreme Court justice, said in a statement.

Even Dickinson, though, agreed Mississippi hasn’t reached its latest set of goals in the case. The outside monitor, in an 80-page report, found Mississippi met only 37 of the 113 standards, while it wasn’t complying with 35. The monitor couldn’t determine if the state was meeting 31 other standards, often because data isn’t available in the state’s computer system or because department employees didn’t correctly enter data.

One big issue remains caseloads. Under the settlement, the state agreed to limit the number of cases any social worker was handling, as well as the number of social workers each supervisor oversees. By now, 90% of social workers were supposed to have low enough caseloads to meet standards, but the monitor said that was true for only 57% of workers in the last three months of 2018. Of supervisors, 79% met the five-worker limit.

The report also questioned whether the state is doing enough to investigate reports of mistreatment of children in foster care. The report cites a number of cases of mistreatment that the agency failed to react to, including children who were beaten and sexually abused. Lowry also cited the recent death of a Natchez 4-year-old and injury to her younger sister in a case where Child Protective Services had investigated and opened a case but failed to take the children into custody.

Overall, the report found that 1.15% of children in foster care last year, or 95 of about 8,000, were mistreated. Mississippi had agreed to meet a lower standard of 0.33%, or 27 children mistreated.

Lee Ann Brandon, a spokeswoman for Child Protective Services, said the inability to measure many outcomes still relates to the state’s outdated computer system. When Dickinson took over, he froze efforts to set up a new one. Those efforts are supposed to begin again on July 1, using $10 million of the additional $15 million in state money, to be matched with $10 million of federal money.

That project is now supposed to be complete by mid-2020, if state lawmakers provide enough money in the 2019 session.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.