While Mississippi courts locked mothers away from contact with their children, some very slick hustlers in high places stole over $130 million in federal welfare money and ignored neglect and battery of children.
When Rankin County law enforcement officers handcuffed Tameika Weston in front of her children in 2016, she had no idea that she was just one of hundreds of Black mothers whose children fell victim to “judicial kidnapping” in Mississippi.
Her three kids – now aged 15, 10, and 5 – would be taken away from her on a spurious charge and she would not be allowed to see them for nearly three years.
Former Rankin County Youth Court Judge John Shirley declared Weston to be an “unfit mother” and separated her from her two older kids and finally took away her infant son, only allowing contact once every six months via telephone.
“He kept my kids hostage for three years,” says Weston. “He labeled me as a single mom living out of a hotel, a drug addict, alcoholic, and pill popper. But I had lived in Clinton for 8 years and had come to a hotel in Pearl because my house in Clinton was being stalked. And when the Pearl police stopped me, I found out that I had a traffic warrant. So, they handcuffed me in front of my kids and brought me to court. That’s when Judge Shirley called me all those terrible things.”
It isn’t hard to imagine how Weston felt at the time knowing that her two older children would be cast off into a corrupt foster care system while alleged white-collar thieves like Nancy New and her son Zach, Department of Human Services boss John Davis, pro-wrestler Ted DeBiase and his two sons, and pro-football multimillionaire Brett Favre were enjoying the high life on millions of dollars illegally taken from Mississippi mothers and children on the brink of starvation.
THEFT OF CENTURY
Regarding the theft of $130 million of federal welfare money sent to the state, a report in the May 12 edition of the Jackson Advocate indicates the enormity of the crime committed by the very people charged with safeguarding the health and welfare of poor Mississippians.
A state lawsuit is demanding $23 million from MDHS Director Davis and has charged him with 23 felonies. Davis, a crony of ex-governor Phil Bryant, who appointed him director, approved over $77 million in illegal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) funds for non-profits run by Nancy New and her son Zach. The state is demanding $19.4 million from Mama Nancy and $2.1 million from her son. The state also is demanding the return of $19.4 million from New’s non-profit operation Mississippi Community Education Center, and another $6.5 million from the private school she runs under the name New Learning Resources Foundation, Inc.
Retired pro-football player Brett Favre owes millions also, according to the May 12 Jackson Advocate report.
“The state is suing Brett Favre for $3.2 million and his company – Favre Enterprises – for $1.1 million,” the report says. “Starting in 2017, the famed quarterback and Mississippi native received $1.1 million in funds from the News’ nonprofit organizations to give speeches that Mississippi State Auditor Shad White said he never gave. Favre paid the state back part of the money, but still owed $228,000 late last year.”
By way of contrast, the Clarion Ledger reports, the state welfare department, DHS, had approved of just 167 of the 11,717 requests for assistance for the state’s genuinely poor people in 2017.
BEGIN WITH BARBOUR
While corrupt practices in Mississippi government at all levels have been well documented throughout the state’s post-Reconstruction history, it was during Haley Barbour’s reign as governor (2004-2012) that the widespread abuse and neglect of children in Mississippi’s foster care system gained national attention and the constant theft of untold millions in federal and state money became something close to a refined art form.
It took a lawsuit by people from out of state to pull the covers off the festering corruption that plagued Mississippi’s Department of Children Services, which since 2016 has been placed under the direction of the Department of Human Services. Child rights organizations like the Children’s Defense Fund, A Better Childhood, and the MacArthur Justice Center have filed numerous lawsuits against the state for denial of parental rights and the violation of the constitutional rights of children in the foster care system.
The case of Olivia Y. v. Barbour was filed on March 30, 2004, only two months after Barbour assumed the governor’s office. The state of Mississippi was eventually found guilty of failure to protect abused and neglected children within its foster care system. The state never fully carried out the terms of the consent agreements of 2012 and 2015. Even more outrageous welfare scandals were emerging around the same time that Tameika Weston had her children taken from her, and it becomes obvious since then that the state is not devoted to relieving the burden of the poor, the weak, and the needy.
Haley Barbour, for example, was the senior partner in the Barbour, Griffin, Rogers public relations firm, dubbed by Bloomberg Magazine as “the top performing lobbying firm” in Washington. Barbour had been the chair of the National Republican Committee beginning in 1993, and as governor of Mississippi, he still had more clout than any of the other party bosses hanging around Washington. His PR firm had clients that ranged from North Korea to Saudi Arabia and from the top tobacco companies to the President of the United States. It was well known that any Republican seeking office at the national level needed the services of Haley Barbour or was almost guaranteed failure.
It was an open secret that Haley Barbour was sent to Mississippi to become governor so he could put an end to the multi-billion-dollar lawsuits a lot of sick and dying Mississippians had been winning against the major tobacco companies and against the manufacturers of deadly drugs like Fen-Phen. Perhaps Barbour’s crowning achievement for his alleged Wall Street “sponsors” was the removal of class-action lawsuits as a part of Mississippi jurisprudence. In the future there will be no new anti-tobacco or Fen-Phen multi-billion-dollar lawsuits in Mississippi.
Barbour also demonstrated how he could, with impunity, take the billions of federal dollars sent to help Mississippians recover from the ravages of Hurricane Katrina and spend them on port expansion and new roads for the Toyota plant in northern Mississippi instead of for food and housing for the victims – especially the Black victims – of the hurricane. The federal government spent over $160 billion for Katrina recovery. No one knows how many of those billions disappeared into open pockets of the political leadership, especially in Mississippi under Haley Barbour.
Barbour returned to his Washington PR firm in 2012, while leaving behind a well-trained group of proteges like Phil Bryant, Tate Reeves, and Delbert Hosemann – the most recent past governor, the current governor, and the lieutenant governor. The glaring issues of juvenile abuse and neglect in state institutions and the misuse of public money brought to light under Barbour continue under his successors.
The authoritarian abuse of the law that was taking place in the Rankin County Youth Court drew the attention of children’s rights advocates from both within and outside of Mississippi.
The MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi in 2016 took notice of how then-Judge John Shirley had blocked a mother of a four-month-old infant from seeing her child because she had been unable to pay a fine for an outstanding misdemeanor charge.
Shirley granted custody of the child to the child’s grandmother. And the mother was under strict orders not to visit the child for more than 14 months, according to the lawsuit filed by the MacArthur Center attorney.
“Such orders are tantamount to judicial kidnapping,” the attorney said.
As the mother’s case proceeded in a separate court, it was obvious that Shirley’s time was not long on the bench. The MacArthur lawyers insisted that Shirley should be fired and the Youth Court shut down. In October 2017, Shirley resigned as both Youth Court judge and as Pearl Municipal Court judge. The Youth Court was closed. But Shirley later won the office of Rankin County Prosecutor. He is up for re-election in the current election cycle.
Weston says that she is determined to fight the judicial system that allows people like John Shirley to hold the fate of innocent children and parents in their hands.
While her children were in the foster-care system, she said, they were beaten, her son was reduced to eating crackers and water for his meals, her daughter forced to drink a gallon of water as punishment, and her infant son was taken away from her for two years.
“I’m opening this back up,” Weston said Monday. “I lost my home. My kids were returned to me in a neglected, abused, and traumatized state. We’ve all got to get treatment. The state of Mississippi did this to us.”
Weston filed an official complaint against Shirley with the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance. Rachel Wilson, the executive director of the Commission, responded to Weston on May 10.
“This letter is to advise you that the judge you submitted a complaint about is no longer a sitting judge,” Wilson wrote to Weston. “Rule 2 of the Rules of the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance states: ‘The Commission shall retain jurisdiction over that judge if prior to his resignation the Commission has initiated an inquiry into the conduct of the judge.’ Since the judge no longer serves as judge, the Commission does not have jurisdiction to hear a complaint submitted after the judge left office.”
Despite her disappointment with the Commission on Judicial Performance, Weston says she will continue to fight and has begun a petition to solicit the support of other mothers, adult citizens, and any adult former foster care children who want to reform the system.