Supreme Court justice David Chandler steps down to run foster care system

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Associate State Supreme Court Justice David Chandler is stepping down from the bench to take over Mississippi’s troubled foster care system.

Gov. Phil Bryant said Monday that, effective immediately, Chandler and the Division of Family and Children’s Services will report directly to him, instead of to Department of Human Services Executive Director Rickey Berry.

“We must do everything in our power to keep them safe and see that they are afforded proper food, shelter and clothing,” the 69-year-old Chandler said in a statement about the children in the system. “We must pursue every avenue available to us to help them find the family that is meant for them.”

Bryant’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for more information about the governor’s authority to order the administrative change.

The unit, which oversees Mississippi’s foster care system, is subject to the 11-year-old federal Olivia Y lawsuit alleging children are being abused because of state failings and demands reforms. The case is named after a then-young girl who was one of eight children who lawyers said had been abused because of the state’s failures.

Mississippi has made four separate agreements over seven years to improve conditions, but hasn’t lived up to any of them. Lawyers suing the state agreed in July to drop their demands that U.S. District Judge Tom Lee hold the state in contempt in exchange for deeper involvement by Bryant.

One of those commitments was to hire a new executive director. The division has been led by an acting director since the summer.

A report commissioned in July calls for the Division of Family and Children’s Services to remain within the Department of Human Services for now, but function like a separate agency, with plans to make it a separate department by June 30, 2018.

New Jersey-based Public Catalyst, a consulting group that wrote the report, said it met with candidates and recommended one to Bryant.

The report recommends a pilot program to privatize certain child welfare functions in at least one county, using an existing private agency providing services in Mississippi.

Public Catalyst calls for exempting the division from the civil service rules of the Mississippi Personnel Board for three years, allowing Chandler to hire and fire freely. The report also recommends changes in caseload standards, higher salaries, and better computer systems.

Bryant said in October that he would ask lawmakers to increase state funding for the foster care system by $37 million. That’s less than the additional $53 million requested by the Department of Human Services in September budget hearings.

“I think the governor knows that reform isn’t going to take place without more money,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, the lead plaintiff’s lawyer.

Lowry said she and the state are trying to negotiate a new agreement to present to Lee at a Dec. 21 hearing. She said that without a new agreement, she would ask to name an outside receiver to take control of the child welfare system.

“It’s an unconstitutional system; it’s in violation of the court order,” she said. “Children are being harmed.”

Chandler had served on the court since 2009. Bryant may appoint someone to fill the remainder of his eight-year term. A successor would be elected in 2016, to take office in 2017.

Bryant hired Chandler’s son, Clay Chandler, to be his communications director last month.