First Place For Youth
Jun 13, 2023
Jackson, MS — June 13, 2023 — House Bill 1149, passed in the 2023 legislative session, will give Mississippi foster youth a stronger voice in court. The bill authored by Representatives Cockerham, Anthony, and Stamps revamps the current youth court process, giving those without a voice legal standing and representation. Youth in MDCPS custody often have not been made aware of their court hearings, were not present in court and had no legal standing or representation in court. Their wishes and input were not generally included in the planning and decisions made about their care and their futures. This will no longer be the case.
“While in custody, I was never able to voice anything for myself. I was never given the choice as to what I wanted to do,” shares Mississippi Youth Voice (MSYV) board member Essence Flowers. “Youth should not only be able to share their opinion but they should be able to make decisions for themselves with an adult’s support.”
“A child who is alleged to have been abused or neglected shall be deemed to be a party of the proceedings…The child shall be represented by an attorney at all stages of any proceedings,” states the new law that goes into effect on July 1, 2023. The bill continues to delineate the role of the current guardian ad litem and the newly established child representative. “The guardian ad litem may serve a dual role as long as no conflict of interest is present. If a conflict of interest arises…the youth court shall retain the guardian ad litem to represent the best interest of the child and appoint an attorney to represent the child’s preferences” further states the law.
Most importantly, the new law also asserts that “the child’s attorney shall owe the same duties of undivided loyalty, confidentiality and competent representation to the child or minor as is due an adult client…”
Additional changes recommended
The change is just one of many recommendations made by Mississippi Youth Voice in the Pathways to Independence Report released this month. Mississippi Youth Voice is a group of current and former foster youth who use their lived experience in the MS foster care system to advocate for positive changes to foster care policies, programs, and laws. The group met with leadership from MDCPS, youth courts, foster care providers, and other stakeholders earlier this month to speak to their experiences and shared formal recommendations with leaders for changes they feel would better serve youth.
“I felt alone and voiceless,” remembers Aundavion who also serves on the MSYV board member. “This was an opportunity to express years worth of knowledge to people who actually can use this knowledge. Thankfully this knowledge will serve others so that they can have better experiences.”
The Pathways to Independence report outlined recommendations in nine key areas: Front line staffing, Documentation and accountability, Youth rights and involvement, Placement settings, Transition planning, Youth socialization, Parenting youth, Extended foster care, and Support for foster youth in post-secondary education programs. Leaders engaged with youth and had collaborative discussion about the recommendations put forth. MDCPS leaders were able to discuss planned changes with the youth and receive feedback as well.
“We are grateful for the opportunity to speak with these courageous youth, hear their personal stories, and consider their recommendations to develop resources that will allow them and future foster youth to thrive. We are encouraged that many of their recommendations are ideas we are already considering as we work together to transform the child welfare system. Our team will continue to engage these young adults to share their lived experience to implement solutions that don’t just work on paper but work in real life.” MDCPS Commissioner Andrea Sanders.
Foster youth encouraged by leaders’ responses
Rebecca Clark shared “I am thankful for all the support and people who took the time to listen and hear our concerns. This gave us an opportunity to share our experiences and stories. It means a lot to us all that we have support and we can make a change.”
“Having the knowledge that many in our position face as foster youth, it was important to have open conversations with those in position to make changes. I’m thankful to advocate and receive feedback. I look forward to more opportunities like this,” added Adelaide Anderson.
ABOUT FIRST PLACE FOR YOUTH: Mississippi Youth Voice is a program of First Place for Youth providing a forum for youth leaders, 18-26+ years of age to advocate for those who have lived in foster care in Mississippi. In serving on the Mississippi Youth Voice board, these young adults develop leadership skills and make real change in the state. Members apply their lived experience to advocate and engage with community leaders, foster care stakeholders, and the broader public to create resources for foster youth and those transitioning out of care.
Mississippi Site Director Samantha Kalahar
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