Lack of funding to close children's shelter

By HASKEL BURNS,

Officials from a Hattiesburg/Lamar County children’s shelter say despite the fact they and other shelters across Mississippi will close their doors after the passing of the Family First Act and other legislation, the change is a good long-term move that will benefit children throughout the state.

Annie Jackson, shelter program director at the South Mississippi Children’s Center, stopped by a recent meeting of the Lamar County Board of Supervisors to tell the board of the closing, which will take effect Friday. The Family First Act – which was drafted by U.S. Sens. Orrin Hatch and Ron Ryden and became law in February – is aimed at eliminating congregate care in order to place more children with families, and will only reimburse the state for the cost of two weeks of congregate care per child.

“We believe that children are best served in their homes,” Jackson said. “Getting kids out of custody is a great idea, but also a part of it is that the federal government is not a fan of congregate care, where five or more children may be housed in a location – so that’s shelters and group homes.

“So there’s going to be a push for more foster homes, because the idea is that children should be raised in homes, which we agree with. So that’s going to be the new direction.”

Because of privacy laws, the exact location of the Hattiesburg shelter, which is managed by Canopy Children’s Solutions, cannot be disclosed. According to numbers from the Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services, a total of 1,544 nights were paid for at the campus by MDCPS from July 1, 2017, to June 30, 2018.

“It’s not that MDCPS is closing any kind of congregate shelters or anything like that – it’s just that the federal dollars made available to reimburse us for congregate care will be going away,” said Lea Anne Brandon, director of communications at MDCPS. “Our first priority is to try to resolve the issues that are threatening the safety of a child by working with the family, if we can safely keep the child in the home and provide wrap-around, in-home service.

“If we cannot keep the child in the home, our next option is to try to find a relative – a family member in another home that can keep that child while we work with the family so we can reunite them when the issue is resolved. The third option would be to place the child in a private, non-relative foster home. If none of those options are available, the best option is to place the child in congregate care – which we do for a limited period of time now, but the federal government will now be restricting it even more.”

Officials did not have exact numbers for how many children are currently in shelters and group homes throughout the state.

John Hudson, Jurist in Residence for Youth Courts at the Mississippi Supreme Court, said in addition to the Family First Act, several other federal statutes have come down over the past 10 or 15 years aimed at providing children with family settings.

“That’s been the purpose of the federal legislation, because they have determined through science that children perform better if they’re in a family-like atmosphere,” he said. “So that’s nothing new with the Family First Act.

“Only the children that simply cannot be placed in a foster home will be in a congregate facility that receives federal funding after the act.”

Hudson said many other states, not including Mississippi, were placing children in congregate care with few or no attempts to place them in a better atmosphere.

“They would just put them in the congregate care in some cases and leave them there for many, many days, and that’s not what the purpose of those places were,” he said. “So the (federal government) said, ‘We’re not paying for that anymore,’ and that’s basically how it came down.”

Beginning Oct. 1, 2019, states have a two-year period to opt out of the Family First Act, but will face some consequences for doing so.

“There is a stream of federal funding that goes along with the Family First bill to fund prevention services, to prevent children from coming into foster care in the first place – to energize and correct whatever problems are going on in their homes,” Hudson said. “And the reason for that is that even in Mississippi, some 80 percent of children that are removed from their home are removed for purposes of neglect, not abuse.

“So if there is a way to intervene and help the families to correct whatever the issues or problems are in their home on the front end and maintain the children in their home, then scientifically that has been proven that children do much better outside of foster care. So the carrot is, is that there will be a lot more monies becoming available to the states to implement these preventative programs, but you can’t get those monies if you opt out.”

Brandon said officials are still looking over options before they make any final decisions.

“We’re trying to see how ready our providers would be by the time it would go into effect,” she said. “We have that (two-year period) to give our providers time to make adjustments, and we’re still debating on what we need to do.

“It’s going to cost the state a considerable amount of up-front money to implement it, that we’re going to have to pull out of the hat somewhere. So we’re weighing the pros and cons of implementing it immediately.”