By Stephanie R. Jones
JA Contributing Writer
Hinds County Youth Court Judge Carlyn Hicks delivered her “State of the Child” address Friday, Nov. 18 outlining how various efforts, programs, and individuals have led to better outcomes for children seen in the court under her leadership.
Hicks was elected in 2020 and took control in 2021 of the court, which hears delinquency and child protection cases in Hinds County. Since then, the court has instituted programs to better serve children housed at the Henley-Young-Patton Juvenile Justice Center and those placed in foster care by Hinds County Child Protective Services.
In the area of child protection, Hicks said that the court has met all benchmarks used by the federal Children’s Bureau to measure how children are being cared for in state custody since 2020. About 30 percent of the court’s cases are child protection matters.
“Before 2020, you could bank on Hinds County being at or below the bottom, due in part to the large volume of cases we handle,” Hicks said. But the statistics point to marked improvement for the county in child protection and in delinquency cases.
In 2020, there were 396 children in foster care in the county. As of November of this year, that number has declined to approximately 210. “We’ve eliminated years of backlog where children had been in foster care 7, 10, even 12 years with plans for adoption,” Hicks told those gathered at the youth justice center.
Last year, 49 children were adopted and another 28 are awaiting court dates for adoption. Hicks said 185 children were reunited with their families.
The change was made possible to programs that deal with all aspects of the family dynamic when handling protection cases including counseling and follow-through for their children. The increase in permanent placement is a benchmark on which the court had lagged in past years.
The decline in overall numbers is also attributable to more grandparents and other relatives or loved ones stepping up when parents couldn’t safely or effectively care with biological and foster parents, and calling on a number of volunteer groups and law enforcement services, Hicks stated.
One of those volunteer groups is Jack & Jill of America, Jackson, MS Chapter. Karla McCollough, chair of the organization’s community service committee, said they adopt four or five families a year to support in various ways. “We provide various things, from holiday meals, to making sure moms receive Mother’s Day cards, to assisting with appliances and bill payment,” McCollough said.
The court now has a multidisciplinary team to handle felonious child abuse cases under the umbrella of the Central Mississippi Child Advocacy Center. The center has conducted more than 542 interviews since its inception, Hicks commented.
The court also has changed or reworked tools used in dealing with delinquency cases, which make up about 70 of referrals before the court. Court is held at least four days a week and averages about 75 referrals per week.
Since the start of 2021, the court has developed mentorship, life skills, and tutoring programs for children in custody. It began truancy and runaway prevention initiatives and an intervention court.
Children meet with an attorney before coming to court to adequately prepare and sit with that attorney in court to facilitate better communication, according to Hicks. They are shackled in court and court counselors meet with them and their families frequently. The court holds quarterly roundtable meetings with law enforcement about court protocol and to develop relationships. Officers, she said, are using community policing tactics and mental health de-escalation training methods and field assessments to determine levels of threat in weighing whether there are alternatives to detaining youth on nonviolent offenses.
Those held in detention attend school and receive medical and mental health services. They engage in recreation and enrichment programs and have the option of participating in pre-GED and law literacy programs that are offered.
“While youth crime is on the rise nationwide, we do all we can so youths don’t graduate to more serious and sometimes deadly behaviors and crimes tomorrow,” Hicks said.
During her address, Hicks recognized CPS staffers, law enforcement agents and community members whom she credited with helping the court do its job effectively. She handed out “Champion for Children” medals to several people, including: Cherrie Tobias, director of Hinds County CPS and her staff; Sgt. Fredric Suttles, Cpl. Rebecca Lomax, and Det. Sharon Jordan, and others from the Jackson Police Department; and Jack & Jill of America, Jackson, MS Chapter.
Stephanie R. Jones can be reached at (601) 454-0372 or firstname.lastname@example.org.