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The Power of Public-Private Partnership in Mississippi’s Child Welfare

Written by Samantha Kalahar and Kimberly Smith

This year marks Mississippi’s ninth year as a Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative site partner with the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Although neither of us were here at the beginning of the partnership to give a full history, we have been here for the past three years and as co-site leads, we are excited to see where collaboration has taken our work through this public/private partnership between First Place for Youth and Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services. Our partnership has had strong youth engagement from the beginning, and in the last three years we have been able to leverage that youth voice and strong new leadership into significant changes in our system, including the support of Commissioner Andrea Sanders. 

As we reflect on the factors that converged to create change, the most important component is respect for lived experience and human voice. All parties value the role of our youth and young adults as a player at the table when plans and decisions are made. From vision sessions to policy design, youth are invited to be involved in the full process. Our commissioner, her leadership teams, our community partners, and our policy makers not only invite youth to the table but listen to their input. 

Although youth voice is so critical to getting to the right solutions, there must exist an appetite for change, a shared vision, and transparency among all parties for the work to be successful. We began by building a vision and key priorities together. We had several working sessions to review the current offerings to transition-aged youth, envision the ideal offerings, and evaluate the resources available to realize the vision. We looked at the capacity of the agency, the capacity of the provider network, the appetite of the youth for services, and what policies needed to be changed in order to implement the plan. 

As MDCPS built extended foster care and supportive services into their overall agency redesign, we also began to work on the policy and program needs outside of MDCPS. We focused on post-secondary education access, driver’s licenses for foster youth, youth rights in court, access to housing, and on financial literacy and asset building through Opportunity Passport. We worked to change the narrative for this population from inevitable failure to incredible potential. We asked for the same resources and expectations given to non-foster care youth and we celebrated the successes of our youth. We found people and systems wanted to say YES, they just needed to see the vision and the path to get there. We are proud of our partnerships and have noted below some of the ways we have been able to make impact together: 

  • In 2022 we passed the FAITH Scholarship for foster youth and in August 2023 the first students arrived on campus with full cost of attendance scholarships. We are now building a network of resources around these students through collaboration with our education partners, child welfare partners, youth, and community stakeholders. 
     
  • In 2022 and 2023, the Mississippi Legislature passed legislation benefiting young people who have spent time in foster care including: 
    • A law that allows 18–21-year-olds to lease, rent, own, or inherit housing 
    • A law waiving the fees for state identification cards, learners’ permits, and drivers’ licenses. 
    • A law requiring foster youth ages 12 and older be involved in all court hearings about their case and providing legal representation to the youth. 
  • And this year, the state child welfare agency continues to make sure resources are available to support young people, informed by their partnership with First Place for Youth, including: 
    • Releasing a request for proposals for a comprehensive Independent Living Skills program for youth ages 14-21 years. 
    • Releasing requests for proposals for driver’s education and license services 
    • Releasing requests for proposals for Supervised Independent Living Placements for youth ages 18-21 years under extended foster care. 
    • Releasing requests for proposals for Supportive Case Management Services for youth ages 17-21 in extended foster care and for FAITH scholarship recipients. 

If you want to learn more about the partnership in Mississippi, don’t hesitate to reach out to Samantha Kalahar at skalahar@firstplaceforyouth.org

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