Mississippi Considers Lawyers for the Poor When Facing CPS

March 25, 2019 by Robert Franklin, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

Certain Mississippi lawmakers, one state Supreme Court justice and the commissioner of Child Protective Services are all going to bat to provide attorneys for parents who find themselves in juvenile court facing charges of parental unfitness, child abuse or neglect (News Observer, 3/10/19).  So far, in at least certain counties, those parents haven’t had access to state-supplied lawyers.

Of course, the vast majority of parents in juvenile court are poor and have attained only modest levels of education.  That means they’re the least able to defend themselves, understand the charges against them, produce evidence on their behalf or grasp the consequences of failure to do so.  Few people in any court need legal representation more than parents facing the loss of their kids.

And, as I’ve said many times before, for the most part, the best living arrangement for children is with their parents.  After that, the best is living with relatives, but all too often CPS agencies err on the side of taking kids out of their homes.  That alone traumatizes them and spending much time with a family of strangers just adds to the discomfort.  Needless to say, there are times that that’s necessary, but time and again, we see CPS agencies that seem to be unaware of their potential for harm.  At least one study shows that even moderately abusive parents are better for kids than foster care.

So it’s a step in the right direction for Mississippi to provide lawyers for parents in juvenile court.  Those arguing on parents’ behalf make an important point.

State Supreme Court Justice Dawn Beam said more lawyers will reduce children entering state custody. That keeps families together and saves the state money…

The Supreme Court Commission on Children’s Justice says numbers in those counties are down from nearly 2,800 in March 2017 to about 2,200 in late 2018. The commission says those 600 fewer children saved the state $3.5 million a year, even after federal aid.

In other words, a few dollars spent on lawyers at the beginning of the process saves the state many dollars in foster care expense.  For that matter, dollars spent on helping parents be better at that job would save the state money too, but that’s matter for another day.

The commission says parent lawyers can help parents find services and can hold Child Protective Services workers accountable. The commission also says courts conclude more quickly which parents aren’t going to work for reunification when they’re represented by lawyers, helping judges move more quickly toward putting a child in care of a relative or up for adoption.

Parents have rights to their kids, but, particularly if they’re poor and poorly educated, they don’t know how to assert them, rendering those rights mostly theoretical.  The well-established tendency of child welfare agencies to run roughshod over parents’ rights needs to be stopped and allowing parents to have legal representation is a good place to start.

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