Former justice retires into career for at-risk kids

Jess Dickinson, a former Mississippi Supreme Court justice, decided against retirement when asked to become commissioner of the state’s Department of Child Protection Services.
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JACKSON, Miss. (BP) -- Before former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Jess Dickinson was appointed commissioner of the state's Department of Child Protection Services, "My plan was to retire." But then a "new door" opened.

Dickinson, who had served on the Supreme Court since January 2004, said he informed Gov. Phil Bryant in mid-2017 of his intention to retire by the end of the year. Instead, he was surprised when Bryant subsequently asked him to be CPS commissioner.

"I hadn't even considered that," Dickinson said, "but I told him I would think about it and pray about it.

"I went home and with my wife was completely convinced that God had a new purpose for me and had opened a new door. All of that sort of fit together as His plan for what I needed to do."

Dickinson took over leadership of CPS on Sept. 18, 2017.

"God's leadership has been first in my life," said Dickinson, a member of Grace Crossing Baptist Church in Canton, Miss. He said his decision to accept leadership of CPS is affirmed "every single day. I see it in the lives of these children … in working with my staff and what we do out in the field."

CPS has faced significant funding challenges, Dickinson said in telephone interviews with Baptist Press. He has requested that the legislature approve a budget of $136 million for the 2020 fiscal year, an increase of $26 million over 2019.

"The feedback I get is that the legislature is for the first time going to fund this agency, provide it the money it needs," Dickinson said. "The revenue is way up from last year. And so they've got some money to do it. So with 100 percent governor support and the legislators giving us positive feedback, I'm optimistic that it will happen."

The additional funding is for caseworker staffing and to stabilize and replace the almost 30-year-old computer database system. These assets will support the agency's efforts to comply with a 2016 agreement in the 15-year-old Olivia Y lawsuit, which accused the state of inadequately monitoring the welfare of six children in foster care. The lawsuit's settlement requires reduced caseloads for CPS caseworkers, which the agency has not yet met.

The additional staffing, if approved by the state legislature, will increase the agency's caseload capacity, thus reducing caseworkers' workloads, Dickinson said.

New funding also will support CPS efforts to prepare for the state's implementation of the federal Family First Prevention Services Act, which goes into effect on Oct. 1. Mississippi has delayed implementation of Families First for up to two years for state funding to be secured.

Under Dickinson's leadership, CPS has focused on helping keep at-risk children safely with their families, rather than place them in foster homes. This is the central objective of Families First, which offers federal incentives to states that practice the approach, which Dickinson said he strongly affirms.

"The traditional thought," he said, "is just take those children away from their parents and put them in foster care. But I believe very strongly that God's plan for the family is … for parents to raise the children in the home. And one of the things that interferes with that is parents often don't know what to do.

"So we work with families and rather than taking their children away from them, we leave them in the home." He said caseworkers are assigned to each home to help lead and train parents to "thrive and let them be good parents. We believe that is one of the things that's in the center of God's will. That's what He wants for our families and for moms and dads: to raise families and take care of them in the home.

"And, my goodness, we've seen such a dramatic decrease in the number of children who we have to take in custody and put them in foster homes. It's amazing."

Even while CPS is focused on keeping children out of foster homes, Dickinson noted that Rescue 100, the agency's streamlined foster home licensing program aimed at churches, is having a "dramatic effect" helping lessen the burden on caseworkers.

"You don't just want foster homes," Dickinson said. "You want good foster homes. You want foster parents that are motivated. You're far more likely to get really concerned, caring foster parents" from churches "than from the public at large. And that's just a fact.

"So a caseworker's responsibilities and time and work are greatly enhanced when a child is in a good foster home with motivated foster parents," Dickinson said. "Caseworkers don't have to clean up behind them. They take the children to get their medical care and their dental care, make sure that they're counseled, make sure they're taken care of.

"Rescue 100 has produced for us many quality foster homes."

Tim Tune is a writer based in Fort Worth, Texas.
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