As recently as 2016, Marion County had the most foster children per capita in the state of Mississippi. There were 315 children in the system out of a population of just over 25,000. For comparison, adjacent Pearl River County had 11 less children in foster care despite having more than double the population.
Two drug epidemics — methamphetamine and opioids — had slammed the rural community for a decade-plus, and more than half of foster children in Marion County in 2016 were there because of parental drug abuse, according to an annual report by the Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services.
Now, three years later, the picture has changed significantly.
Marion County is one of the three counties in Mississippi that has shown the most dramatic decrease in number of children in care during the last year, Lee Anne Brandon, director of marketing and communications for the Department of Child Protection Services, said. That’s mostly because these children are reunified with their parents.
“If we can keep a child safe at home by bringing in staff to work with the parent, to address the issue that caused a potential risk to the child, we try to do that,” Brandon said.
Not everyone agrees with that approach.
Some foster parents, who see the situation from the inside, say biological parents often do the bare minimum to regain custody but rarely have a lasting transformation because of lack of money, lack of support and negative influences from other family members.
“In Mississippi, it looks good if your numbers are down and if the child’s reunified with their parents,” Kathryn Selman, a Marion County foster mother, said. “They will be getting a case off their desk so CPS enjoys it.”
Selman and her husband want to fight for the best of the children and believe that sometimes returning to their biological family is not the answer.
“CPS works with the parents,” Selman said. “They don’t work with the children. They’re not there for the children. They’re there to put the family back together.
“Most of the time we’re not talking about a mess up; we’re talking about a meth lab in a house, and we’re talking about putting a child in a car going all over the country with no food or car seats and running from the law,” Selman said, describing some of the situations she encounters.
Many reunifications she feels good about, though. Returning children to their biological parents is important, she said. She only wants parents to receive the right help and to be equipped for parenting. A majority of parents of foster kids were themselves in the system, she said.
“We’re fighting the court system,” Selman said. “We are trying our best to get somebody from the state to listen.”
A Broken System
The state’s foster care system has been under federal court oversight for more than a decade, following a 2004 federal lawsuit called the “Olivia Y” case that alleged Mississippi utterly failed to adequately protect foster children under its care. The case started with a girl in the foster care system referred to in court documents as Olivia Y. The 4-year-old suffered from severe malnourishment, weighing just 20 pounds, the average weight of a 1-year-old.
The state agreed to a settlement in 2008, but the plaintiffs in the lawsuit later asked for control of foster care in the state to be shifted to a federal receiver to hire an outside group to run the system. In 2016 the state admitted to never complying with the terms of the agreement. That year the state renegotiated the terms of the settlement in a last effort to keep control of the system, and the Legislature created a new agency separate from the Department of Human Services, the Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services. Its job is to provide protection and safety services and serve as a foster care and adoption agency.
If a child is sexually or physically abused or if neglect puts health or well-being in danger, they are supposed to be immediately moved from the home. Those children are then placed with foster families who agree to take them.
When fostering, Child Protection Services first tries to keep children in their homes and schools, but it is not uncommon for children to move to another county for their safety.
Families like the Selmans and Johnsons in Marion County foster younger children who are close in age to their own children. Mississippi law permits each household to care for as many as five children, including biological ones.
“These are human beings that just want somebody to love,” Kathryn Selman said. “They didn’t ask to be brought into their situation.”
The Selman family
Selman and her husband shuffle around the kitchen, fixing their daughters’ breakfast before school and before she leaves for work as a nurse.
This regular family routine could change abruptly with the next phone call. Selman could set another place at the table, for another child, who might join them for dinner that night, and the night after.
Selman once worked with a 13-year-old who was sexually abused by her family and beat a caseworker, who also told her that if she would stop overreacting to rape, her anxiety “would all go away.”
That teen is now in a facility and has few options. Selman spoke of the need for mental health resources in Mississippi to aid the system.
“These children need to understand that this is not their fault,” Selman said.
However, Selman recognizes that many CPS workers are overworked, underpaid, “busting their behinds trying to take care of the children.” She knows of one CPS worker who drives 40 miles out of his way so children can stay at their current schools. She said she knows of workers, lawyers and judges who purchase dishwashers, refrigerators and couches to help.
In one year, the Selmans have fostered three children and have two daughters of their own. A girl stayed with them only one night, but a 15-month old boy has been with them for nearly a year.
The boy stays with his biological mother on weekends. “They peel him off of me,” she said of his departures.
“Even at that age he acts out because he is so torn between back and forth. It’s not good for him. I don’t really care what people say,” she said.
“You’re never prepared,” Selman said of being a foster mom. “You can go to all the classes you want, to all the hearings you want, but nothing prepares you.”
The Selmans keep a photo album with pictures of each child on the day that child moved in and the day each left. The entire process is about loving unconditionally and accepting the outcome of these newfound foster relationships.
“You cannot do this and not get attached,” Selman said.
The Johnson family
Kelly Johnson is a foster mom in Marion County and works as an elementary school teacher. Her family has fostered 13 children during the last three years.
“There are times I feel tired, but we’re fighting for a purpose,” she said. “We’re fighting for a reason. We’re fighting for kids.”
The Johnsons have been caring for two little girls for almost a year. She and her husband are the only parents the two children know.
Their hardest part is that a child could be taken at any time, and most court dates produce anxiety in foster parents.
Johnson said they get through the hard times and unexpected turns by keeping up the routine of their normal lives. They once fostered a girl on Dec. 20 and gave that child a great Christmas.
But such moments are rare. It takes time for foster parents to build trust, and the Johnsons view themselves as caregivers and protectors, not parents.
“I’m not trying to take the role of the mother, but trying to take the role as the person that’ll be there,” Johnson said. Many of the children have abandonment issues, she said.
One of Johnson’s 3-year-old foster girls took seven weeks to say, “I love you.”
“There are times that we see the bright star. We see their improvements. We see the light at the end of the tunnel,” she said.
Johnson hosted a child who had been burned with cigarettes for misbehaving. She noticed the girl’s misbehavior was always a plea for extra attention. Instead of timeouts, she created “time-ins,” during which the child helped with chores like laundry.
“It’s getting someone else’s child that has been programmed one way and then you’re learning how to parent that child,” Johnson said.
“They don’t know what structure is. They don’t know what it’s like to have Mom, Dad, a bed every night, food every night, not from a gas station or a dumpster.”
The Johnsons have struggled with creating schedules for the children. Many have never had a designated bedtime. Two sisters they fostered travelled throughout the country avoiding law enforcement, with six family members sleeping in a car.
“I can’t replace her mother, but my husband and I try to step in and do the best that we can and give her that security,” she said.
Children often go back and forth for weekend visits with parents and are given false hope for reunification. Johnson’s 3-year-old packed because her mom told her that she would be returning home permanently.
The family once had to remove decals from their cars, not take their girls to Walmart and switch daycare locations so that the biological mother could not take them out of school. Johnson and her husband were warned to be cautious because officials feared that she would harm the foster parents to get her children.
The Johnsons say that through fostering they have become closer, learned to love better and live gratefully.
Whoever is living with them at the time, their two young children insist that their foster sibling are their siblings, at the dinner table and on vacations.
Johnson took her oldest foster child to the Child Protection Services office to visit her biological mother. When a worker entered the hall to inform the girl her mom would not be coming, the child insisted she would appear, but the worker repeatedly said, “No.”
“I have heard her cry, I have heard her throw a fit, I have heard her scream, but this child wept,” Johnson said. “That child laid on the floor and said, ‘My momma doesn’t love me.’”
“My bond with her changed that day. Her weeping broke her heart and after that day she stopped asking for her mom. She needed me more, and that’s why I do this.”
Meagan Harkins and Rabria Moore are students in the University of Mississippi School of Journalism. They may be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.