Lee County Youth Court program could expand statewide

Program seeks to keep kids out of foster care and keep families intact

TUPELO, MISS. (WCBI) – A Lee County Youth Court program whose goal is to keep kids out of foster care is selected as a pilot program for the state.

“I don’t want to be an adoption agency, we want to reunite families, that is the whole goal of this court,” said Lee County Youth Court Judge Stacy Bevill.

When  Bevill was elected youth court judge in 2019, about 80 percent of kids in foster care in Lee County were eventually adopted.

That same year, the Mississippi Legislature provided money to fund parent attorneys for abuse and neglect cases.  For the first time, parents had a voice.  The next year, Lee County was asked to be part of a pilot program funded by the Casey Family Foundation, that provided a social worker to work alongside the parent attorney in what is called “Family Defense Teams.”

Dierdre Berry is the parent representative advocate for the Lee County Youth Court.

“Our team is really more of a support system for the family, so you have CPS workers who advocate for children.  We advocate for the parents, we are a support for the parents and they have their own team of people working for them,” Berry said.

While the Family Defense Teams initially assisted parents who wanted to get their children back from Child Protective Services custody, Judge Bevill and her staff are now using a similar strategy to keep kids out of state custody.

That is done by developing what is known as a “Safety Plan,” which allows children to stay with family members or friends during CPS investigations.

“We wanted to put as much effort as we did on working with parents whose children were in care, we wanted to work that hard to help parents who are at risk, and that is what the Parent Defense Team looks like.  We have been designated as a pilot county for this program because we are one of the first counties to work on the at-risk side,” Judge Bevill said.

Last year, 144 children successfully avoided CPS custody because of the Safety Plans.  That not only means families were kept intact, but it also means big savings for taxpayers.

While foster parents are paid an average of 600 dollars per foster child,  those who agree to take in kids under the safety plan are not paid any state funds. Last year that amounted to more than one million dollars in savings for the state and Judge Bevill says the program can be expanded.

“We are wanting the state to invest in these Family Defense Teams and the return on investment is unbelievable,” Bevill said.

Now, Judge Bevill and her team, with help from the State Supreme Court, will ask the legislature for money to fund Family Defense Teams in other counties.

Lee County’s Youth Court now has two parent attorneys and two social workers for parents.

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