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Reform Plan: A New Model in Child Welfare Cases?

In a twist that could influence the resolution of other pending child welfare cases, an independent accreditation organization – the Council on Accreditation (COA) – will help Mississippi implement a five-year reform plan to settle a lawsuit against the state.

The plan, part of a class-action settlement approved by a judge last month, includes raising foster care reimbursement rates and limiting caseworkers to 14 cases each.

That Mississippi has agreed to submit to the accreditation process is “the part about the settlement that’s really groundbreaking, compared to other settlements in other states,” said Corene Kendrick, a staff attorney at the California-based Youth Law Center, who worked on the case while at Children’s Rights, which filed the lawsuit.

“This would definitely be a model for working with large public systems,” said Richard Klarberg, CEO of the New York-based COA.

The Mississippi suit, Olivia Y. v. Barbour, et al., was brought on behalf of 3,500 children in the custody of the state Department of Human Services, which includes the Division of Family and Children’s Services.

One rap on Children’s Rights – that it has a heavy hand in settlement oversight – could be diffused by COA’s involvement. The “tripartite” structure allows the state to “demonstrate that they are doing this incrementally,” Klarberg said, rather than finding that “nothing has happened” at the end of a protracted settlement period.

Kendrick of the Youth Law Center said COA’s accreditation requirements for counties and states are “stricter … than what you might see in a court settlement agreement.”

The most immediate impact might be on the pocketbooks of Mississippi’s foster families: Their payments would increase by nearly $100 starting in January, to $430 per month, and to $555 per month by July 2009.

The New York-based Children’s Rights is the major force behind lawsuits against the child welfare system. The nonprofit reports that it is in litigation with two other states and in court-enforceable monitoring agreements with eight other states and jurisdictions.

Contact: Children’s Rights (212) 683-2210, www.childrensrights.org; Council on Accreditation (212) 797-3000, www.coanet.org.

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