By: Geoff Pender, The Clarion-Ledger (Original Post)
State Supreme Court Justice David Chandler has left his elected post on the high court to oversee federally mandated reform of Mississippi’s foster care system.
Gov. Phil Bryant announced Monday morning that he is appointing Chandler, effective immediately, as executive director of the Division of Family and Children’s Services. Bryant for the first time is making the DFCS director a cabinet-level position that reports directly to the governor and wants the Legislature to make DFCS a stand-alone agency instead of a subdivision of the Department of Human Services.
Chandler said Bryant approached him about taking over the state’s troubled child welfare system and, “telling the governor no is a difficult thing.” He said he agreed to take the job for four years, “but no more,” and is planning to leave when Bryant’s second and final term ends.
“I’m going from a situation where voters only could remove me to one where one guy can,” Chandler said. “I may be fired before the sun goes down, but I plan to do what I can to get this system functioning in such a way that every Mississippian can be proud of it.
“We have got to fix this.”
Bryant, elected to a second term in November, has said reform of the state’s foster care and child welfare system is a top priority. He plans to push the Legislature next year for $37 million in additional funding to meet terms of the “Olivia Y” federal lawsuit settlement. His appointment of Chandler, who has 20 years of experience in education serving as a teacher, counselor, school psychometrist and administrator before his legal career, appears to reinforce that commitment.
“(Chandler’s) experience and ability will be invaluable in making sure our foster care system operates safely and efficiently,” Bryant said in a statement Monday.
Olivia Y was one of eight children named as plaintiffs — but representing many others — abused because Mississippi failed to protect children in foster care. Olivia in 2003 was a 3½-year-old girl in Forrest County who entered state custody weighing only 22 pounds. Despite being malnourished, she was listed as having no problems and was not given a medical exam. She was given five separate foster placements in the first three months of her entry into DFCS custody. DFCS placed Olivia in her aunt’s house, claiming a background check on adults in the house had been done, but she was removed after the agency learned the aunt’s son was a convicted rapist.
After being placed in a shelter, Olivia was malnourished, suffering depression and showed signs of sexual abuse, but DFCS, according to the original complaint, made no effort to perform a thorough medical exam to determine sexual abuse or the extent of her injuries or find her a permanent home even after six months in state custody. DFCS at the time still listed as its ultimate goal to reunite Olivia with her mother who had neglected her.
The lawsuit — on behalf of thousands of children who go through the Mississippi system — was filed in federal court in 2004. A settlement was reached in 2008, but the state has since failed to comply with the terms of the settlement. As of the end of May, the state had 4,931 children in its custody.
“We are going to get this done,” Bryant said recently. “We have no choice. If we don’t do it, the federal court is going to make us do it.”
Chandler on Monday said a recent order by the federal court has made it clear it has lost patience with Mississippi failing to enact and fund reforms.
“Something’s going to give within the next few months,” Chandler said. “Either the state of Mississippi is going to show it cares for children in its custody, or the federal government will do it.”
A July court order directed Bryant to either call a special session of the Legislature to address reform and funding or deal with it in regular session that begins Jan. 5. If lawmakers fail to act, the court directed plaintiffs to refile a contempt complaint, Chandler said, and “contempt has already been decided.” The state could face its child welfare system being placed in federal receivership, and a judge could force the state to fund changes.
Chandler said the state Legislature should not want to lose control of the purse strings and policy. He said the court would likely work with the state if it is making a good-faith, timely effort to fix problems, but would likely be more rigid if not. Beyond that, Chandler said, the state doesn’t need such a rap in the national spotlight.
“We don’t want all the nation to hear Mississippi did such a poor job protecting children in its custody that the federal government had to take over,” Chandler said.
Chandler said the governor will lobby the Legislature to make DFCS a stand-alone agency and remove it from State Personnel Board oversight to allow restructuring. He said the state has long suffered a shortage of social workers and hiring more would be an obvious early challenge. He said increasing social worker pay, which is lower than that of public school teachers, is also an obvious change. He said the state will soon know the time frame under which it must make changes and increase funding.
Chandler, 69, was elected to an eight-year term on the state’s high court in 2008 and would have been up for re-election in November 2016. Bryant plans to appoint someone to serve out the remainder of Chandler’s term on the nine-member court.
Chandler was born in Kosciusko and grew up in Weir. He earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in education from Mississippi State University, a law degree from the University of Mississippi and a master of law in judicial process from the University of Virginia.
For about 10 years, he worked in Choctaw County public schools before becoming a research and curriculum specialist at MSU, where he developed material for secondary and post-secondary work-force training programs.
After law school, Chandler practiced law in Tupelo and Choctaw County, where he served as attorney for the Board of Supervisors. He was municipal judge in Weir from 1999 until he was elected to the Court of Appeals, where he served for eight years until he was elected to the state Supreme Court in 2008.
Chandler has authored numerous professional articles on education and law.
Chandler and his wife, Glenda, live in Louisville and have two sons. His son Clay Chandler, a former Clarion-Ledger reporter, recently wasnamed communications director for Bryant.
Chandler said he’s heard many terrible stories from Mississippi’s child welfare system and dealt with such cases as a Supreme Court justice. But he said a recent encounter with a Mississippi couple gives him hope. They adopted two children — a 2-year-old and an infant — after the children were abandoned at a hotel and taken into state custody.
“Fast-forward,” Chandler said, “and that 2-year-old is now a college engineering major, and his sister is now graduating high school and looking forward to a medical career and has the ability to make it into medical school. That’s what proper services can do, not only for children, but for our state.”