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Miss. foster families say they're not receiving enough state help

GULFPORT, Miss.—As Hurricane Katrina approached, many children in state custody were removed from South Mississippi shelters and state-run facilities and placed in foster homes directly in Katrina's path.

There have been no reports of a foster child dying during or after the storm. But more than 30 foster homes were destroyed by the deadly Aug. 29 hurricane.

Now those foster parents are struggling to feed, clothe and care for children while living on cruise ships, in crumpled homes and cramped trailers. Many say they received no direction from the Mississippi Department of Human Services before the storm and little help since.

"There wasn't a plan," said Beth Casey, an intake counselor at the Harrison County Youth Court, which works closely with DHS on abuse, neglect and juvenile delinquency cases. "Or if there was a plan, we don't know about it."

The lack of a plan or direction from state DHS officials resulted in nine children staying in a South Mississippi shelter without running water or electricity for a week after Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, court officials say.

On Aug. 30, the day after the storm, an employee of the Harrison County youth shelter stopped to check on the Gulfport facility used to temporarily house kids who have been removed from their homes. The shelter had been closed and evacuated before the storm.

While she was there, foster parents desperate for help brought children to the shelter. Other children started arriving in the days that followed. Shelter workers did not want to turn children or foster parents desperate for help away.

"No one expected that to happen," Casey said.

But local social workers could not get calls through to state DHS officials three hours north in the Mississippi capital of Jackson, which had some power and phone outages.

DHS offices in Harrison County were flooded. Landlines were down. So social workers asked youth court officials with working cell phones to alert state DHS officials that the kids at the shelter needed to be removed.

DHS-level state officials told the court employees that they couldn't come and remove the children because they were having trouble getting gas in Jackson, Casey said. Court officials, also facing gas shortages, arranged for county transportation to take the kids north, where they could be placed in areas not ravaged by the hurricane, she said.

Col. Donald Taylor, who is the head of DHS, and other DHS officials did not return repeated calls for comment.

This is not the first time that the department's handling of child protection services has been questioned. A New York-based children's rights group sued the department last year for failing to protect the reportedly 3,000 children statewide in its care. The lawsuit is still pending in U.S. District Court.

Officials don't know how many children under DHS supervision were in the South Mississippi counties hardest hit by the storm.

Harrison County Court Judge Mike Ward said DHS officials told him that all foster children in South Mississippi have been located. Harrison County has approximately 300 children under DHS supervision, court officials estimate. Harrison County is the most populated of the lower three counties—with a pre-Katrina population of a little less than 200,000.

Many of the families involved in DHS services are scattered across the country. Ward is compiling of list of contact information of every parent, foster parent or guardian with cases pending before him.

"We've already had to cancel several hearings," Ward said. "We can't serve notice on these parents if we don't know where they are."

Milissa Boykin, president of the South Mississippi Foster Parent Association, has heard from dozens of foster families after Katrina. She said 36 foster families in the area have lost their homes.

Boykin had eight foster children with her at her Moss Point home during the hurricane. Some were placed with her just days or hours before the storm.

Catherine Garriga said she was asked to take three foster children the Saturday before Katrina made landfall. Two of those foster kids, she says, helped save her family, friends and pets from Katrina's rising waters and quite possibly saved her life.

Although foster parents received kids, what they didn't get was information, Boykin said. Not even emergency phone numbers.

"They need an emergency plan," Boykin said. "There was no communication."

In those desperate days after the storm, foster parents who did not evacuate said they struggled to find enough food to feed the children in their care, obtain medications or medical treatment or even provide the psychological support their foster kids need.

What help Boykin has received has come from local civic groups, churches and the national and state foster parent associations, she said.

Casey, the county intake counselor, and many foster parents applauded the heroic efforts of local social workers in Harrison, Hancock and Jackson counties—the Mississippi counties hardest hit by Katrina. Many went to extraordinary lengths to find foster children after the storm with little or no help from state DHS officials after the storm.

"We had one social worker who got three flat tires in one day," Casey said. "These social workers were living in the same conditions as all of us. Their homes were destroyed. They didn't have electricity. They couldn't get gas."

Vicki McAdams is living with her adopted and foster care children on a cruise ship in Mobile, Ala. McAdams said she contacted DHS after the storm to let them know where her foster kids were staying. But she has not heard from DHS officials since.

McAdams, Boykin and other foster parents are worried about the foster children still in their care. Some have had behavior problems since the storm, McAdams said. Boykin's foster children need counseling, but the DHS counselor quit after Katrina and hasn't been replaced.

"These kids need help," Boykin said.

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(Musgrave reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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