Broad topics for this week’s hearings included a statistical overview of maternal/child healthcare, adoption, foster care, and child support.

This week, the Mississippi Senate Study Group on Women, Children and Families held their first set of meetings to hear from a variety of speakers on how the state can best support families. The lawmakers, appointed by Lt. Governor Delbert Hosemann, are tasked with making legislative recommendations related to families and young children from birth to 3 years old.

Broad topics initially set for this week’s hearings included a statistical overview of maternal/child healthcare, adoption, foster care, and child support.

State Senator Brice Wiggins, who serves as a member of the Senate Study Group, spoke with Y’all Politics about the recent hearings the group conducted. Hear what he has to say about the meetings below.

On Tuesday, lawmakers heard from representatives from Mississippi State University (MSU) Social Science Research Center, the University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMMC), the Mississippi State Department of Health (MSDH), the Division of Medicaid, the Delta Health Alliance, the National Conference of State Legislatures, Center for Pregnancy Choices, Community Health Association of Mississippi and others.

State Senator Nicole Boyd, Chair of the Study Group, said the legislators started the committee meetings off by looking at the data. 

“They have done an amazing job of compiling a lot of statistics and data so we kind of get a full picture of what we’re looking at and looking at metrics that we would like to see changed in the state,” Boyd said.

Some of those data points were shared by the MSU Social Science Research Center, where presenters noted that last year, 4,470 people (0.4% of the workforce) worked in childcare in Mississippi while the mean wage of Mississippi childcare workforce was $9.37 /hour or $19,490/year.

Dr. LouAnn Woodward, Vice Chancellor for UMMC and Dean of the School of Medicine, said that Mississippi is ranked #1 in the U.S. when it comes to the highest fetal mortality rate, the highest infant mortality rate, and the highest pre-term birth rate.

According to the Delta Health Alliance, 559,756 residents live in the Delta’s 19 counties, which represents 19% of the state’s population.

“The Mississippi Delta has among the highest rates of teenage pregnancy and unintended pregnancy in the nation,” Delta Health Alliance said in their presentation. “When women have children before they are ready, they are less likely to finish school and attain high-paying employment and are more likely to require assistance from social service programs.”

DHA stated that studies prove Head Start and other programs improve the employment and wage prospects of single mothers. Their presenters said that high-quality preschool is pivotal for the future success of the most at-risk children. 

“The economic and social impacts of widely available, high-quality preschool are substantial,” the DHA presentation stated.

The National Committee of State Legislatures (NCSL) discussed state legislative trends and examples pertaining to maternal and infant deaths. 

“All states renew maternal deaths and at least 28 states review fetal-infant deaths,” NCSL’s presentation stated.

Community Health Center Association of Mississippi (CHCAMS) shared more data, noting that between 2019-2021, there were 13,254 health center prenatal patients in community health centers. 

According to CHCAMS, 35% of women patients at health centers are uninsured. 

On Wednesday, the Study Group heard from representatives of the Mississippi Child Protection Services (CPS), Mississippi Supreme Court Adoption Task Force, Office of the Attorney General, Mississippi Department of Human Services (MDHS), and more.

The Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services (MDCPS) suggested legislative considerations for 2023, including:

  • Complete separation of MDCPS from MDHS 
  • Technical Bill
  • Safe Haven Law
  • Neglect Definition

On behalf of the Attorney General’s Office, Deputy Attorney General Whitney Lipscomb testified and recommended several policy proposals regarding how the Legislature could positively impact mothers. Proposals from the AG’s office included tax credits for childcare, paid parental leave, and improving child support.

Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) shared about their programs in Mississippi. CASA programs are currently serving 693 children in foster care across the state and served 560 children in 2021. CASA reported that 93% of their recommendations were accepted or court ordered by a judge. The group recruits, trains and supervises volunteers to serve as Volunteer Advocates for children on youth court dates. CASA says it currently has 297 Volunteer Advocates across the state. 

CASA also discussed some recommendations, including: 

  • Salary increase MDCPS employees to prevent turnover and help with retention of staff
  • Timing of paying resource parents (when child is initially placed in the home) and support provided to them 
  • Children in custody receiving timely monthly allowance

The Department of Human Services provided several legislative requests at the Senate Study Group hearing.  MDHS would like the state to incorporate the Child Support Guidelines Advisory Group’s Report and its Guideline Recommendations into legislation to be passed in the 2023 Session to ensure courts can order the support each child needs.  MDHS would also like to see lawmakers:

  • Pass the amendment to the guidelines to allow incarcerated and involuntary commitment to constitute a material change in circumstances 
  • Encourage further collaboration with eh Department of Insurance and the Gaming Commission for opportunities to collect arrearages through Insurance Claims Matching and casino winning intercepts 
  • Continue the previously approved funding for SUCCESS project to modernize the legacy computer systems at MDHS to promote a more efficient and effective management of not only IV-D Program, but also TANF/SNAP eligibility and childcare programs

The Senate Study Group will meet again on October 25 and 26, 2022.

Broad topics set for these dates include childcare availability and early intervention. Additional hearing dates or topics may be added as necessary.

The public is invited to submit written testimony to [email protected], which will be shared with the full study group.

**Contributions from Sarah Ulmer, Capitol Correspondent**