No doubt, families have been under stress during the coronavirus outbreak. In some families, more stress leads to more abuse. Anecdotal reports are pouring in that medical providers are seeing more children with evidence of abuse. As schools and churches are not meeting, potential abuse is not getting reported. Social service systems are likewise overwhelmed.
But Mississippi’s foster care system has been overwhelmed for a long time, hasn’t it? It’s a system that has failed thousands of children over the years. Children like Armani Hill. Armani should have just celebrated Easter with her sister and family. She should be learning her colors and know that her favorite one is purple. Her only worry should be whether she’ll get to go to any swim parties this summer – after the coronavirus ends.
Most of all, she should have had a chance. A chance to find out that she loved dance and was actually really good at it. A chance to learn about math and space and the Grand Canyon. A chance to be upset that the boy in her high school English class didn’t like her back, but her Biology lab partner did.
Armani didn’t get these chances. On June 10, 2019, Armani’s mother left her and her sister, Lailah, alone with her boyfriend at their home. By the time the Natchez police were able to report to the scene, it was too late for Armani. Both of the girls were severely abused.
This was not the first time Armani and Lailah had been abused. Child Protective Services had previously opened and closed cases on the girls twice due to injuries they had sustained as recently as May of that same year.
Armani’s chances were stolen from her by the state of Mississippi and a foster care system’s failure to put her safety first. Unfortunately, Armani is not the only Mississippi child who never got a chance.
Olivia Y. is one of these children. When she entered the foster care system at age 3, she weighed only 22 pounds. The Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services (MDCPS) deemed her healthy. She wasn’t even given a medical exam.
Olivia lived in 6 different homes before she ended up being placed in a shelter. When she got there, she was malnourished, depressed, and showing signs of sexual abuse. MDCPS continued to ignore Olivia.
Olivia’s death should have shocked the system into reform. It should have been a wakeup call for the people of Mississippi. Instead, a law firm from New York sued the state.
This lawsuit resulted in a settlement agreement creating 113 benchmarks for the Mississippi foster care system. A 2018 report found that 10 years later, Mississippi is only complying with 37 of those requirements.
On December 10, 2019, Mississippi Child Protection Services executive director Jess Dickinson resigned from his position after only two and a half years. A new director has yet to be appointed by Governor Tate Reeves.
Fortunately, the Mississippi legislature has been considering important reforms that would help our foster care kids. These include bills by Sens. Joey Fillingane and Angela Hill and Reps. Jansen Owen and Kevin Ford. Fillingane and Ford’s companion bills would have helped kids get safely placed with family members or get adopted, instead of languishing for years in foster care.
Hill’s bill would have required CPS workers to record interactions with foster children and their parents in abuse investigations. Owen’s bill would have helped protect children like Armani and Lailah and Olivia who are subject to repeated abuse and/or exposure to drugs. Owen also introduced a measure to give the legislature more oversight over CPS finances.
None of these bills survived the legislative crossover deadline.
The legislature, however, is still considering an expansion of the Children’s Promise Act. Passed in 2018, this law creates several tax credits that are empowering foster care nonprofits to help more families in Mississippi. Rep. Trey Lamar, the House Ways and Means Chairman, and Sen. Josh Harkins, the Senate Finance Chairman, are working to expand the cap for this innovative program, leveraging private donations to help a system that needs more than just a budget increase.
Armani and Olivia were not given the chances they deserved. Their voices were stolen from them by a system that wasn’t looking out for them. Even as we face a health crisis that has claimed the lives of thousands of people nationwide, it’s worth considering the lives of the thousands of children in Mississippi foster care. They’re worth our time and attention too.
This column appeared in the Northside Sun on April 30, 2020.