When Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services Commissioner David A. Chandler hands over the reins of MDCPS to his successor this week, he will be entrusting to Justice Jess Dickinson a child welfare agency that is more efficient, more effective and more focused than the one he inherited 21 months earlier.
“We have come a long, long way in a relatively short period of time,” said Chandler, who was tapped in December 2015 by Governor Phil Bryant to oversee a wholesale revamping of Mississippi’s troubled child welfare and foster care system. Chandler’s retirement is effective Friday, Sept. 15. Dickinson assumes his new role on Monday, Sept. 18.
“There is still much to be done, but we are most definitely on the right path,” Chandler added. “We have assessed our weaknesses and failings, have evaluated our remedial options and crafted a solution. We know where we are going and how we are going to get there.”
Chandler credits his “wonderful leadership team” and the hundreds of MDCPS state office and field operations team members for coming on board and quickly coalescing around a shared vision for improving the quality and scope of professional services provided to Mississippi’s most vulnerable children and their families. He also acknowledges the “invaluable leadership and advocacy” of Gov. Bryant and the 2016 Mississippi Legislature for creating a stand-alone agency to be separated from the MS Department of Human Services and for significantly increasing state funding to provide the financial resources required to address the troubled child welfare program.
“It has not been easy but everyone has risen to the challenge,” said Chandler, whose leadership drew national accolades in January when the National Council for Adoption presented him the Warren and Mary Alice Babineaux Award recognizing Mississippi’s progress in transforming the state’s troubled child welfare system into a strong safety net for at-risk children and their families.
Established by the 2016 Mississippi Legislature which also provided increased funding necessary to make critical improvements and expand staffing, MDCPS is scheduled to become a stand-alone agency by June 30, 2018. Chandler anticipates the functional separation from DHS to occur well before the legal deadline. With the exception of specific administrative, legal and financial responsibilities, the new agency is essentially performing as an independent agency at present.
“There is a light at the end of the tunnel now, and it is getting brighter every day we continue on the path we have established.”
In December 2015, Chandler resigned his seat on the Mississippi Supreme Court to accept Bryant’s appointment to oversee court-ordered reform of Mississippi’s child welfare and foster care system. Chandler first was named executive director of the Division of Family and Children’s Services, a cabinet-level position reporting directly to the governor. Chandler’s position was then appointed as MDCPS Commissioner when the Mississippi Legislature authorized creation of the stand-alone agency. In May 2016, Bryant signed Senate Bill 2179 separating it from the Mississippi Department of Human Services and establishing MDCPS as an independent agency. The legislature then significantly increased state funding for the agency to pay for mandated improvement. The change enabled MDCPS to begin enhancing its organizational infrastructure and increasing the number of social workers employed to meet the needs of children and families across the state.
“When the Governor asked me to assume this role, I was handed the biggest challenge of my career. The first thing I did was to find the best and brightest minds and hearts I could find to shape and lead this new agency. And we rolled up our sleeves and got to work,” he said.
“Addressing the problems of a massive child welfare system has been, at times, overwhelming. But we are making progress. We will have stood up a completely new agency with a fresh face and a transformed way of doing business. We will have strengthened the safety net to protect children who need our care and we will nurture families in their own homes so at-risk situations do not turn into unsafe environments.”
Chandler points to the negotiated settlement in December 2016 of a years-old federal lawsuit brought against the State of Mississippi for failures in the foster care system as the stellar “sea change” accomplishment of his tenure as the first commissioner of Mississippi’s new child welfare agency. The new agreement, approved December 19 by the U.S. District Court following lengthy negotiations with the lawsuit plaintiffs, created clear, obtainable objectives and enhanced the ability of the newly-formed MDCPS to direct its full attention to protecting Mississippi’s children.
Under the new agreement, many unnecessarily rigorous reporting requirements from the 2012 settlement agreement were lifted, freeing MDCPS to devote full attention to accomplishing its mission of protecting children and working to enhance the foster care system. As the system is further improved and critical performance measures are met and maintained for a 12-month period, the individual measures will be removed from monitoring, creating an achievable path toward the eventual end of court oversight.
Key to these reforms is increasing the number of social workers across the state. Under the new agreement MDCPS is now able to hire recent college graduates with social work or related human services degrees, and then provide on-the-job clinical training to enhance the skill sets of the new hires. Increasing the number of highly trained social workers will play a tremendous role in optimizing the level of care for children.
“This new agreement wisely measures the steps that are most important to reaching our goal of protecting Mississippi’s children and nurturing families – and it will provide quantifiable evidence that we are, indeed, significantly improving the child welfare system in our state,” said Chandler.
Among the key metrics mandated under the new settlement agreement is for MDCPS to increase the number of licensed foster homes across the state and to move foster children toward permanency as expeditiously as possible.
Chandler said MDCPS has already made great strides toward both goals by recruiting, training and licensing new foster parents. To-date in 2017, the agency has licensed 330 new foster homes. It has also developed an expanded, intensive in-home services programs to be provided as a pre-emptive service to families at-risk of having their children taken into state custody.
MDCPS is also working hand-in-hand with the court system and the Office of the Attorney General to accelerate the process required to free children for adoption when circumstances for reunification with birth parents is not safely possible or not in the best interests of the child.
“Our all-encompassing goal is to provide all Mississippi children with stable, permanent family connections – and to avoid or minimize the trauma involved with separation whenever and however we can,” Chandler said.
“If we can safely keep children with their birth parents while we work with the families to address problems and strengthen family functioning, that is our preference. If we must take children into state custody, we will place them in a nurturing foster home until it is safe to reunite them with the parents who have regained stability. When that is not possible, we work to recruit loving adoptive families and make that connection as quickly as possible.”