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Released June 28, 2004

STATE'S SOCIAL SERVICES CAN DO MORE
TO KEEP CHILDREN SAFE, EXPERT SAYS
By Christopher Mapp

HATTIESBURG -- Stretched thin, overworked and underfunded, Mississippi's social services are not doing enough to help keep at-risk children safe.

"All we can do is the best we can do with what we've got, but that's not good enough anymore. Our children deserve better," said Beth Frizsell, director of strategic planning for the National Child Welfare Resource Center for Organizational Improvement.

As keynote speaker at a summer colloquium sponsored by The University of Southern Mississippi's School of Social Work and Pine Grove Recovery Center at the Family YMCA on Friday, Frizsell delivered a mixed report on the state of child welfare and mental health services in Mississippi.

Frizsell's address was followed by a panel discussion featuring experts in the fields of education, social services, health and law, elaborating on the theme "What Children Deserve in the 21st Century: Child Welfare and Mental Health."

Panelists included Forrest County Youth Court Judge Mike McPhail; Velma Hankins, coordinator of the Title IV-E program at Jackson State University; Dr. Missy Rowley, assistant professor of social work at Southern Miss; Dr. Michael Forster, director of the Southern Miss School of Social Work; and Billy Mangold, director of the Division of Family and Children's Services for MDHS.

Compared to other states, Mississippi is doing a good job of safely reuniting with their families those children taken from their homes due to neglect, and doing a good job of keeping them there. However, too many children - almost 40 percent as of 2000 - were still in custody of the state, against an average of 31.5 percent nationally.

Frizsell said social workers in Mississippi are being asked to keep children safe, while at the same time receiving fewer and fewer resources to do their job effectively. The average caseload per field agent is 44 children, and in some counties, Frizsell said, there is only a single case worker for the entire county.

In some counties, caseloads exceed 100 children per worker, she said, even though the federal guidelines recommend 12-23 cases per worker.

"But we're not being told we're getting more workers. Instead, we're being told we're going to get more cuts, that we're going to go to a skeleton crew," Frizsell said.

Compounding the problem is the heavy number of cases judges face in the court system, Frizsell said. "The lack of court administrators, like court clerks, slows the process." About 3,000 children in Mississippi are currently in the foster care system due to abuse or neglect.

Children deserve permanence and stability, said Frizsell, who prior to her national role served as the Mississippi Department of Human Services' deputy director for the Division of Family and Children's Services. "If children must be moved from a situation, then timeliness is important. Every day is like a year to a child."

Frizsell urged the audience to "get active" by contacting state legislators to fight the constant erosion of services for child welfare. "Too often our elected officials are left out of the loop," she said.

Another way to close some of the system's gaps, Frizsell said, is to collaborate with other agencies, like mental health and educational institutions. She also recommended maximizing federal support, or "drawing down" federal dollars. "We can't be apathetic anymore. We've got to protect our children," she said.

Before the keynote address, the School of Social Work honored retiree Carolyn Brooks with a plaque commemorating her 14 years of service to the program as coordinator of field placements. "It's been a great ride," Brooks said. "I spent more than a third of my professional career at (Southern Miss)."

Joseph Bohanon has been tapped to replace Brooks as the program's new coordinator of field placements.

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July 6, 2004 1:56 PM

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