HANCOCK COUNTY, MS (WLOX) - Hancock County residents are being asked to make sacrifices for the sake of the children. This week the Board of Supervisors told all county departments they must cut 12 percent from their budgets. Board President Lisa Cowand said part of the reason is the county is preparing to open a shelter for foster children in January. Right now there is no such shelter.
Before Hurricane Katrina, there was an average of 85 to 90 children in foster care in Hancock County. Right now the number of children the state has removed from their homes is more than 300.
"That's almost as many kids as Harrison County has with five times the population," Hope Haven Director Terry Latham said. "First of all, we don't have enough places to keep them here in Hancock County. So even when we pick kids up, with inadequate numbers of foster homes available, I would say 80 to 85 percent of kids have to transported out of this county."
Officials said some children are transported as far away as Hattiesburg, which makes it difficult everyone involved to resolve the situation including parents, children, and social workers.
Hancock County bought a $246,000 house to serve as an emergency shelter.
"This new home will allow countless children to find shelter in a safe, comfortable, caring environment in some of their greatest times of need," said CASA of Hancock County Director Jennifer Sutton. "By having our children remain in our local community, it will also allow social services and resources to be more quickly identified and provided to them. Ultimately, this will enable these children to obtain the stability and permanency that they so desperately deserve."
"The county has reacted to the problem, I think, very well by agreeing to open up an emergency shelter," said Latham. "That will provide eight or nine beds for kids when they're initially picked up and brought in custody."
County officials said $300,000 is earmarked to operate the facility. The county must still find a way to remodel and furnish the shelter.
"We don't want to have a millage increase. We don't want to see anyone lose their jobs, but we cannot put the burden on the taxpayers at this time," Cowand said.
The sacrifice is that sweeping budget cuts in Hancock County are expected to mean job losses.
Hancock County Sheriff Ricky Adam said a 12 percent budget cut will cost his department about $450,000. He said that means there will be no weekend boat patrol on the river from Memorial Day to Labor Day next year. Also, between eight and ten people will lose their jobs.
"We have some folks who are close to retirement age, so we're hoping they're going to retire to save from having to cut other staff," said Sheriff Adam. "But I'm to the point we've made progress in Hancock County. I just refuse to cut road deputies. I refuse to cut narcotics or investigations."
Adam said in the 20 months since he took office, burglaries have gone from an average of 17 to 20 a month to about two or three a month. Also felony drug arrests are up 400 percent.
Child advocates said Hancock County's children are counting on the community stepping up, even if it takes sacrifice.
"It's the quality of life that's so important and the quality of life starts with taking good care of our kids. If we can't do that, everything else is not very important," said Latham.
Another change to help the children, Hancock County officials said it is growing the Youth Court budget. Youth Court will have two new guardian ad litems, and will also begin operating one more day a week as the county tries to focus more on helping families in crisis.
Latham said a lot of the reason behind the increase of foster cases is that a large number of people have moved into the county
"We've had an influx of people coming in from elsewhere looking at the cheaper rent. Unfortunately, many of them are unemployed or underemployed. So we've kind of turned the county upside down," said Latham. "Unfortunately, the jobs aren't here to support them, so we have many single moms. We have many families that are immediately in economic crisis. We have many kids living around people in housing units that they've never lived next to before. The result is more kids are being sexually molested and abused. More kids are being physically abused. It's just the bottom line."
Cowand said Hancock County is facing other costs that make the cuts necessary, including unexpected expenses from the jail.