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Jess H. Dickinson will step down as Commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services in mid-January 2020 after fulfilling a commitment made to Gov. Phil Bryant in September 2017 when the former state supreme court Presiding Justice was appointed to the child welfare post.
“Although I had been planning to retire at the end of 2017, I committed to the governor when I accepted his appointment that I would work for him through to the end of his term in office – and I have fulfilled that commitment,” Dickinson said this week, moments before signing his official letter announcing his retirement, and delivering it to Bryant’s office.
After receiving the two-page correspondence, Bryant immediately responded by praising his appointee’s accomplishments.
“I commend Justice Jess Dickinson,” Bryant said. “Under his leadership, CPS has made significant improvement…I appreciate his many years of dedicated public service and wish him the best in his retirement.”
Dickinson, who is now looking forward to traveling, playing his dulcimer and spending time with family including nine grandchildren and two foster grandchildren, describes his service as Commissioner for the past 27 months as the most rewarding of his professional career. He admits daily amazement at the work performed by his agency caseworkers, support staff and leadership.
“They are my heroes,” he said. “I am amazed that they are able to do what they do and see what they see every day, and still get the job done. I don’t think I could do what they do.”
Dickinson said his MDCPS experience has been filled with heartbreaking situations involving tragic and unthinkable child abuse and neglect cases, but he also has seen many victories in the lives of children and their families. “Nothing equals the joy of sharing the heartwarming celebrations when children are adopted into loving, forever families and when children are safely reunited with parents who have courageously addressed and resolved their behavioral and family relationship problems,” he said.
“When I accepted this appointment, I thought I knew what I was getting myself into. But I quickly discovered I had no idea of the challenges and the successes that awaited me,” said Dickinson. “I have learned so much. I have seen so much.” “The people of Mississippi owe a debt of gratitude to the dedicated, unsung heroes at MDCPS who work hard every day to protect these children and heal these families,” he said.
During Dickinson’s tenure as Commissioner, MDCPS has made significant progress in key areas affecting child safety and well-being in Mississippi, including:
- Reducing the number of children in foster care from a high of more than 6,100 in mid-2017 to 4,347 in December 2019.
- Doubling the annual number of adoptions of former foster children from a low of 302 in SFY 2017 to a record high of 647 in SFY 2018, and another record of 657 is SFY 2019.
- Increasing the number and geographic distribution of licensed foster homes to care for children who have been removed from their birth homes for substantiated safety concerns.
These and other successes have led Dr. Jerry Milner, Associate Commissioner of the Children’s Bureau—the part of the federal government that oversees federal funding of child welfare across the United States—while speaking at a national conference on child welfare, to refer to Mississippi’s recent advances in child welfare as “the Mississippi Miracle.”
“I had to see it with my own eyes to believe it,” Milner said recently. “This is nothing short of amazing. We’re telling the whole country what is happening here in Mississippi.”
Also, under Dickinson’s leadership, MDCPS has reversed a projected $52 million budget deficit he inherited when taking over the agency, and now is operating on a sound financial footing with a streamlined organizational structure. The agency has developed and implemented a “Safe at Home” strategic plan which directs all aspects of the state’s child welfare system with an emphasis on trauma-informed practice for child abuse and neglect prevention efforts.
“I can retire knowing that MDCPS is in much better shape today than when I walked through the door,” Dickinson said, quickly adding that much work remains to be done.
Topping that to-do list, he says, is extricating Mississippi from a protracted federal lawsuit originally filed in 2004. The legal battle, to-date, has cost the state more than $15 million in legal and court-monitoring fees, and plaintiffs’ lawyers currently are pushing to have a federal receiver take over operation of the state agency.
“I cannot begin to describe the negative impact this lawsuit has had and continues to have on the children and families we serve, not only emotionally, but also from a financial perspective. The lawsuit usurps a tremendous amount of time and money from our staff and frontline caseworkers – time and money better invested in protecting children and strengthening families,” Dickinson said. “We are working daily to improve our practice so we can better protect children and strengthen families.”
MDCPS was established by the 2016 Legislature as a separate agency focused solely on child welfare, protection and abuse prevention.