Agency leader: Child protection services unprepared to deal with more children

Sep. 28—JACKSON — The leader of the agency responsible for taking care of children who have been neglected told lawmakers on Wednesday that her organization is not prepared to deal with the likely uptick in children the state will see because abortion is now outlawed in Mississippi.

Child Protection Services Commissioner Andrea Sanders told the Senate committee examining child care and maternal health policies that paltry wages for caseworkers and a high turnover rate among employees will likely mean the agency isn't adequately equipped to place more children under their care.

She said it's very possible an increase in the state's birthrate will exacerbate problems with an already overwhelmed system.

"It concerns me," Sanders said of the possibility of the agency dealing with more children.

Dr. Daniel Edney, the state health officer, told lawmakers on Tuesday that health leaders predict the Magnolia State will see an additional 5,000 births each year now that the U.S. Supreme Court eliminated a constitutional right to an abortion.

Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, on Wednesday said that most of the increased 5,000 births will likely be unplanned pregnancies, increasing the chances that those children could be placed under the supervision of CPS.

Lawmakers earlier this year voted to spend around $59.1 million in American Rescue Plan Act money, the bulk of which will help the state's troubled foster care system meet federal court-ordered reforms from a long-running federal lawsuit. But those federal dollars are not recurring.

Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, pointed out that the starting annual salary for caseworkers at CPS was $31,00 — only slightly above the salary that officials at the state welfare agency on Wednesday said left parents unable to pay for child support.

"This afternoon, we've been talking about people who can't afford to pay their child support because their salaries are so low, and the figure we've been using is $30,000 a year," Bryan said. "The prosecution rests."

Sen. Chad McMahan, R-Guntown, also suggested the state could explore opportunities to partner with faith-based organizations like the Tupelo Children's Mansion for adoption and child welfare services.

The hearing reminded lawmakers of the extremely poor maternal health metrics that exist in the state of Mississippi. One-fifth of children experienced hunger in the state last year, many counties have no OB-GYN, the state has the lowest per capita rate of physicians out of any state in the nation, many mothers receive no prenatal care, and nine out of 1,000 babies in Mississippi die.

State health leaders like Edney and Dr. LouAnn Woodward, the dean of the School of Medicine at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, renewed their call for lawmakers to extend postpartum Medicaid benefits for up to a year for poor mothers.

In Mississippi, about 60% of births are covered by Medicaid. But those mothers can only continue to receive health benefits for around two months after giving birth.

The state Senate has repeatedly passed legislation to extend those benefits for up to a year after mothers give birth to try and combat the state's terrible maternal mortality rates. But the House has repeatedly shot down the proposal because House Speaker Philip Gunn claims it's a form of Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act.

But Division of Medicaid Director Drew Snyder told lawmakers on Tuesday that extending postpartum coverage is "a different" type of discussion from a complete extension of Medicaid under the ACA.

"I don't think it poses long-term sustainability questions like ACA expansion does," Snyder said.

Wednesday concluded the first round of the study committee's hearings, and two more hearings are scheduled to occur at the end of October.

The chairman of the study committee, Republican Sen. Nicole Boyd of Oxford, told the Daily Journal that the first round of hearings were an opportunity to gather data from agencies and organizations

"State agencies have been very honest about describing the problems they're dealing with," Boyd said. "I've been very appreciative of that."

Boyd said the hearings next month will focus specifically on workforce, childcare and early intervention policies. The public can submit comments and suggestions to the committee at wcfstudygroup@senate.ms.gov

taylor.vance@djournal.com