Family First initiative works to prevent child neglect

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A new initiative has been working for the past year to bring communities together and find local solutions to prevent child neglect.

The  Mississippi Family First Initiative summarized work of pilot programs in eight counties in a report to the Commission on Children’s Justice. Pilot programs are operating in Bolivar, Jackson, Lauderdale,  Lee, Hinds, Madison, Rankin and Pearl River counties. Efforts included raising awareness of needs and available resources, and developing and implementing action plans to address those needs in each community.

Mississippi’s Family First Initiative is a judicially-led effort to prevent child maltreatment and the unnecessary removal of children to foster care by engaging communities in the development of collaborative strategies to deliver localized services that strengthen families. The Family First Initiative brought together government, industry, non-profit and non-government entities, and the faith-based community.

Supreme Court Justice Dawn Beam and First Lady Deborah Bryant are co-chairs of the statewide Family First Initiative.

“This has been an incredible year as we have seen community leaders rally local efforts to equip families and caregivers with the tools needed to provide a healthy and safe environment for children,” said Supreme Court Justice Dawn Beam.

Common to all pilot programs were poverty and lack of awareness in communities about resources already available. The pilot programs varied in other identified priorities. Among them are drug abuse and addiction, crime in general, domestic abuse, reentry for people who have served prison sentences, employment, education, housing, transportation, and physical and mental health services.

“I am so excited about the progress that has been made in our pilot counties,” said First Lady Deborah Bryant. “When we all share our resources for the betterment of the community, there is nothing we cannot accomplish.”

In Lee County, the availability of free civil legal services was expanded.  Senior Chancellor Jacqueline Mask several years ago established a model for addressing the civil legal needs of the poor with free family law clinics held twice a year in Tupelo and at least once a year in other counties of the First Chancery District. Using that pro se clinic model, monthly free legal clinics were scheduled in Lee County. Volunteer lawyers assist families to resolve issues regarding child welfare. By addressing issues such as housing, adoption and child custody, the free legal clinics are able to resolve problems before they develop into neglect or abuse.

In Pearl River County, Initiative members are working together to provide support to parents to attend technical training and GED classes and provide childcare assistance while the parents attend classes. Pearl River County also hired as County Resource Coordinator, Jansen Owen, to address residents’ needs and coordinate responses. For example, a November 2018 storm left a disabled veteran father and his daughter without power. They were unable to pay for repairs as another storm approached.  Members of the Initiative Advisory Council worked together to provide supplies, permits, and labor for repairs.

In Jackson County, a church provides evening meals for families and is collaborating with the Youth Court on a mentor program for parents working toward reunification with their children in foster care.

Bolivar County is planning an expungement clinic to help people to clean up eligible offenses on their records so that they may have better chances of being hired, and may seek better-paying jobs.

Rankin County is testing a collaboration platform, Meet the Need. The free online tool connects resources to needs and helps coordinate efforts around at-risk families.

In Madison County, the County Steering Committee, including Youth Court judges and physicians from the University of Mississippi Medical Center, has discussed coordinating parental opioid addiction treatment with mental health services for caregivers and children. Hinds, Rankin, and Jackson counties are considering similar whole-family delivery models.

Additionally, the report noted that neglect, which can be prevented, is responsible for a majority of the removals of Mississippi children from the physical and legal custody of their parents. As of May 2019,  4,707 children were in state custody, with 62 percent due to neglect.

The three primary causes of neglect identified in removal cases were parental drug abuse (43%),  inadequate housing (30%), and caretaker inability to cope (25%).

“State intervention in families, even when justifiable, causes trauma to children and their families,” the report states. “The trauma of removal compounds the intergenerational trauma often present in families that become system-involved. Many of these families have experienced chronic poverty and lack the ability to secure adequate familial supports. Existing practices and limited capacity in child welfare systems place the onus on parents to “fix” themselves. In its current design, this system is primarily reactive. The current system must wait for harm to occur to a child instead of working proactively to mitigate risk and stop harm from ever happening.”

The past year for the Family First Initiative has been one of assessing needs, organizing community collaboration, developing plans and beginning implementation. The year 2020 is expected to see full implementation, and 2021 will be the evaluation phase to determine how the Initiative can be launched statewide.

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