Mississippi DHS in Hot Water over Background Checks

By Michael Klazema on 1/4/2016

A Mississippi mother is accusing the state's Department of Human Services of failing to properly conduct background checks of foster parents. The woman's two children—both toddlers—allegedly contracted gonorrhea while in the custody of DHS, implying that sexual assault took place somewhere along the line.

 The mother was arrested in February of 2015, leading a judge in the Hancock County Youth Court to place her children in the custody of the Hancock County DHS. The DHS, in turn, had a contract with Watch Me Grow Learning Center, a daycare center with which the mother's two young children were supposedly placed. The children were in the custody of the DHS and in the care of either the daycare center or other foster homes from February through June of 2014, during which time the mother alleges that they were sexually abused.

In June of 2014, the mother and a DHS investigator took the children to a local medical center, following accusations of sexual abuse. The medical center determined that the children had to have been sexually abused, based on their conditions. And while the medical center could not determine who was responsible for the assaults, the incubation period for gonorrhea proved that the children had to have contracted the disease while in DHS care.

Attempting to determine who assaulted the children could, unfortunately, be an exercise in futility at this point. However, the mother believes that both the Hancock County Department of Human Services and the Mississippi DHS were negligent in caring for her children. First of all, she believes that the DHS did not properly conduct background checks of foster parents and other workers who had contact with her children. Second, she believes the DHS failed to monitor her children while they were living in a foster care environment. It is not immediately clear what steps the Hancock County DHS took to screen its employees or foster parents, or what the department's policies are in regards to foster family monitoring.

This case will not be the first time that the Mississippi Department of Human Services has been the subject of scrutiny. According to a report from the Sun Herald, a South Mississippi publication, the DHS has been investigated both internally and by the Attorney General's office, while the Hancock County branch has been probed by the local sheriff's department. In particular, Hancock County's Division of Family and Children Services has been scrutinized for problems with employees and other issues. Is the department doing enough to ensure that children placed in their care are safe?

Criminal background checks, sex offender background checks, and child abuse checks should all be standard in scenarios such as this one. Those checks shouldn’t just probe local or state records, but should utilize multi-jurisdictional databases or use address histories to formulate a full picture of where DHS employees or foster parents have been—and what they have done—in the past. In addition, regular monitoring of foster care environments and perhaps even repeat background checks for foster parents are musts. If an overhaul is on the way for Mississippi's DHS system, these steps and requirements will hopefully be considered.


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