Wednesday, August 9, 2017
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — One former state supreme court justice is leaving his post running Mississippi's foster care system, but another justice will leave the court to take over.
Gov. Phil Bryant announced Tuesday that he's naming Supreme Court Presiding Justice Jess H. Dickinson to lead the Department of Child Protection Services effective Sept. 18. Current Commissioner David Chandler, 71, will retire Sept. 15.
"Dr. Chandler has done a remarkable job leading Child Protection Services," the Republican Bryant said in statement. "Our foster care system has made significant progress under his direction, and I wish him the best upon his well-deserved retirement."
The 70-year-old Dickinson, a justice since 2004, said that Bryant had approached him about taking the job several weeks ago.
"This is just such a unique opportunity to do good, and at the end of the day, that's what we're all born to do," Dickinson told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
Bryant will appoint a successor to Dickinson who will serve until January 2020, joining two other Bryant appointees on the nine-member court — Dawn Beam and James Maxwell II.
Because of a quirk in how judicial terms are staggered, the next nonpartisan election for Dickinson's post from the 27-county Southern District will come in November 2018, but that term doesn't begin until 2020.
Dickinson first joined the court in 2004.
Child Protection Services, which oversees Mississippi's foster care system, is subject to a 13-year-old federal lawsuit alleging children are abused because of state failings. Chandler took over in December 2015 and the plaintiffs agreed last December to a timeout in certain monitoring efforts to allow Chandler to try to improve the department, which was split from the Department of Human Services. As part of setting up the new department, lawmakers agreed to increase state spending to hire more social workers and pay them more.
In return for the pause, the state agreed to reduce the number of children being cared for in unlicensed homes. Bryant and some others have broadly praised Chandler, but lead plaintiffs' lawyer Marcia Lowry said it "remains to be seen" how successful his tenure has been. Lowry is supposed to get an update on progress later this month.
The lawsuit began in 2004 and is named for Olivia Y, one of eight children who lawyers said had been abused because of the state's failures. Despite a series of settlements that promised reforms, the state has repeatedly failed to meet past targets.
Dickinson said foster care problems have concerned him "for a very long time." He said that by some measures, the department appears ahead of schedule, but said recruiting and retaining social workers remains a particular challenge. Dickinson said he doesn't plan extensive changes in the department at this time and said he hasn't committed to staying any particular length of time. Bryant leaves office in January 2020, and a new governor could name a replacement then.
"I can't imagine getting up in the morning and doing anything more worthwhile than trying to accomplish the purposes of that department," Dickinson said.