Head of Mississippi foster care agency retiring in January

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JACKSON, Miss. — The leader of Mississippi’s long-scrutinized foster care agency is retiring next month shortly after a new governor takes office.

Jess Dickinson sent a letter to current Gov. Phil Bryant on Tuesday, saying that Jan. 16 will be his last day as commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services. Dickinson previously served as a circuit court judge and then a state Supreme Court justice. Bryant named him commissioner in September 2017.

Bryant’s successor, Republican Tate Reeves, becomes governor Jan. 14. There is typically a large turnover of state agency leaders when new governors take office.

Since 2004, Mississippi has been enmeshed in a federal lawsuit over its foster care system. A monitoring report issued in June questioned whether the state is doing enough to investigate reports of mistreatment of children in foster care. The report cited cases of mistreatment that the agency failed to react to, including children who were beaten and sexually abused.

Marcia Robinson Lowry is executive director of A Better Childhood, the organization suing Mississippi over foster care. She told the Clarion-Ledger on Tuesday that Dickinson’s tenure as commissioner has been bad for children.

“I don’t think he tried to comply or have his agency comply with the requirements of the federal court order,” Lowry said. “I think the children are worse off for that.”

Dickinson told the newspaper that Lowry is “completely wrong.”

“I look at the outcomes to children,” he said. “She’s looking at some kind of mathematical statistics in that settlement agreement.”

Dickinson said more than 6,100 children were in foster care when he became commissioner. The number Tuesday was 4,347.

Bryant, a Republican, said on Twitter that he wishes Dickinson well in retirement. Bryant said Child Protection Services has increased the number of adoptions and taken steps to keep families intact when it’s safe to do so.

Dickinson said that when he started at the agency, he committed to work until Bryant’s term ends.

“It has been my honor and privilege to serve the state of Mississippi,” Dickinson wrote in his letter to the governor.

Dickinson said he will turn 73 in the spring and wants to spend more time with his wife, their four children, nine grandchildren and two foster grandchildren.

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