Hattiesburg Model Court

Brief History

The Forrest County Youth Court in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, joined the Model Courts Project in 2008.  From its involvement with the National Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families as a Zero to Three (ZTT) Safe Babies Court Team site beginning in 2005, the Court already had the hallmark Model Court structure in place. When NCJFCJ staff first met Forrest County Youth Court Judge Michael McPhail and his court team in 2007, the Court had a lead judge and a child welfare collaborative in place.  At that time, NCJFCJ researchers were invited to Mississippi through a federal Post-Katrina Hurricane Relief grant to assess Forrest County Youth Court dependency processes. This assessment was part of a larger assessment of the state’s conformity to the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (ASFA) requirements and best practices as set forth in the Resource Guidelines.  PPCD staff found the Forrest County Youth Court to have many strengths upon which to build Model Court practices, including a judge who demonstrated effective leadership both on and off the bench.

Judge McPhail has continued to serve as the Hattiesburg Model Court Lead Judge during the Court’s participation in the Model Courts Project.  The court’s leadership structure includes the Lead Judge, the Court Administrator and the Coordinator for ZTT Safe Babies Court Team.  The Model Court consists of the county prosecutor, the GAL, the caseworker supervisor of the Mississippi Department of Human Services (DHS), Division of Family and Children’s Services (DFCS) and faculty partners with the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) School of Social Work and Training Academy.  The Model Court enjoys a close relationship with USM, with the university providing technical assistance and support on several initiatives including the development and maintenance of a court information management system.  The Hattiesburg Model Court Lead Judge has also worked closely with Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians (MBCI) Senior Youth Court Judge/Tribal Model Court Lead Judge Kevin Briscoe to develop ties between the state Model Court and the Tribal Model Court.  Judge Briscoe is a member of the Hattiesburg Model Court.

Leadership

Current Lead Judge:  Judge Michael McPhail

Court website – None

Successfully Implemented Signature Best Practices

1.  Parent Handbook

To promote family engagement and parent understanding of the dependency court process and child welfare system, the Hattiesburg Model Court created a parent handbook on the court process.  It includes monthly calendars, note sections for each month, a glossary, brief descriptions of court and child-welfare-related programs and services, and contact numbers for various child welfare, court and community professionals.  English and Spanish versions of the handbook were developed so as to better serve the Spanish-speaking community in Forrest County.

2.  Detailed Court Orders

The Model Court has also focused on producing orders that accurately and clearly capture rulings so as to give parents a full and understandable record of what is decided at each court hearing.

3.  Front-Loading and Family Finding

The Hattiesburg Model Court also practices front-loading of services and active family finding efforts especially in cases involving babies and toddlers.  Connecting young children to medical services and emotional supports early on in the case, including Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) assessment, together with scheduling monthly review hearings with case staffings are important ways the Court provides close oversight and monitoring.  Family finding efforts for ZTT cases have expanded to active (and successful) outreach to fathers.  As a result, more children are being placed with fathers or paternal relatives than in the past.

Additional Best Practices and Initiatives Implemented

Participation in a Four-County Parent Representation Pilot Project

Parent Mentoring Program

Current Goals

NATIONAL GOAL: Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) Compliance & Tribal Engagement

The Hattiesburg Model Court and the MBCI Tribal Model Court have put Mississippi at the forefront of progressive approaches to state-tribal collaboration.  The two judges were instrumental in bringing the Mississippi Court Improvement Project (CIP) and the MBCI together to organize the first statewide ICWA conference held in 2011 and hosted by the MBCI.  That inaugural conference has created the foundation for subsequent collaboration.  In August 2013, Mississippi CIP, Mississippi DHS and the MBCI will be offering the 3rd Annual Statewide ICWA Conference.  The signing of a Memorandum of Understanding in October 2012 by the state of Mississippi and the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians regarding services to Choctaw children was a noteworthy achievement for the two Model Courts and child welfare in the state. 

With the co-chairman of the Mississippi Commission on Children’s Justice, Judge Tom Broome and Judge McPhail helped to amend the Mississippi Rules of Youth Court to include ICWA.  As a member of the Board of the Mississippi Judicial College, Judge McPhail ensured that County Youth Court Judges and Referees received training on ICWA at the annual youth court judges meeting held in September 2012.

STATE GOAL: Statewide Implementation of Best Practices

The Hattiesburg Model Court Lead Judge is in active communication with the Mississippi CIP in developing strategies for promoting best practices and Model Courts statewide.  Planning discussions began in 2012 around such ideas as partnering experienced judges with newer judges and creating teams for cross-site visiting, including visiting Model Courts in other jurisdictions.  A challenge for statewide implementation of best practices is the state’s court structure that creates 21 county youth courts with full-time, elected judges who preside over both dependency and delinquency cases in their county, and numerous chancery courts where referees are appointed, on a part-time basis, to decide dependency cases. 

LOCAL GOAL: Child Well-Being

At the local level, the Model Court implemented FASD screening for infant and toddler cases as a strategy to promote child well-being.  In so doing, the Model Court worked collaboratively with medical providers and assessment services in Forrest County to ensure that assessment of children involved in foster care and dependency proceedings are a priority.