Chancellor Margaret Alfonso says one of the main reasons 131 Mississippi adoptable children are without homes is the shortage of social workers to handle their cases.
Alfonso, a chancery judge for Hancock, Harrison and Stone counties, said more state funding is needed to bolster the staff she describes as the "front line that brings the children into the system.''
Alfonso joined Attorney General Jim Hood and other judges and lawyers in Jackson on Tuesday to promote adoption in Mississippi and to tout their joint efforts to help more adoptable children find homes.
The state Department of Human Services has 317 adoptable children in its custody. In some cases, the children are orphans; in other cases, their parents' rights have been dissolved by a court.
Of the 317 children, 186 are in the process of being adopted. That leaves the 131 needing homes.
"Unless we get our priorities straight and fully fund and staff the Division of Family and Children's Services, this is going to continue,'' Alfonso said after the news conference.
DHS has 15 social workers who handle 25 to 30 adoption cases each. The adoption unit has three social worker vacancies, said Rickey Berry, deputy administrator of programs at DHS.
DHS has asked for an extra $16.1 million in state money for the fiscal year that starts July 1 - a request fueled in part by the agency's desire to fill vacant positions, especially for social workers.
Hood said a project his office initiated with the Mississippi College School of Law, DHS and chancery courts is helping to expedite the process. Law students fill out all paperwork for the adoptions and lawyers volunteer to appear in court to finalize the case.
Chancery judges are setting aside one day each term to hear only adoption cases, Hood said.
The project has increased the number of adoptions. According to DHS, 270 adoptions were finalized in Mississippi in federal fiscal year 2004, which ended Sept. 30. That's 87 more than the previous year.
Hood said he hopes as Mississippians enjoy the Thanksgiving holiday, they "will prayerfully consider adopting these 131 children who need parents.''
Katina Hardee, a Mississippi College law student who coordinates the adoption program, said more than 130 attorneys have volunteered to handle the cases for free.
"All they really have to do is show up in court that day,'' Hardee said.
The Mississippi College students have completed documents for 37 adoptions, and 23 more are in the process, Hood said.
Missing from the news conference Tuesday was Supreme Court Chief Justice Jim Smith, who has declared Nov. 30 "State Adoption Day.'' Smith was out of town visiting his grandchildren, two of whom are adopted, said Justice Kay Cobb.