Catholic Day at Capitol speakers urge action with love

By Maureen Smith
JACKSON – Almost 100 people attending Catholic Charities’ Catholic Day at the Capitol Thursday, Feb. 11, in Jackson heard that the situation for Mississippi’s children and those with mental health issues is dire, but not without hope.
The Poverty Task Force, coordinated by Catholic Charities, selected two issues of focus this year – taxation and issues involving children and mental health. Speakers came to educate and empower attendees on both issues.
Bishop Joseph Kopacz opened the day with prayer and a few words about the responsibility of Catholics to be involved in the public square. Matthew Burkhart of Catholic Relief Services took over to give an introduction to advocacy.
Burkhart called advocacy one of the “two feet of love.” He outlined ways to interact with law and policymakers, emphasizing that in-person visits by engaged constituents have been shown time and again to be the most effective way to impact the process. People who can’t meet lawmakers in person, he said, would do better to write personal letters and emails rather than just sign a form letter. He urged people to include a personal example to support their cause.
The morning concluded with words from three panelists who had their own powerful personal stories to share. Warren Yoder of the Public Policy Center of Mississippi spoke about the lawsuit against the state foster care system. At the time the suit was filed, the system was quite simply overwhelmed. “It got so bad on the coast case workers would shred records on children because they knew there was no way they could get out to see them or provide services and case workers were getting blamed,” he said.
The federal government will take over the foster care system unless the state can demonstrate improvement. “The number of families failing in Mississippi and the children taken into care is skyrocketing,” said Yoder. He said half of the caseworkers assigned to investigate and follow up on reports of abuse have overwhelming workloads. A thousand currently operating foster homes do not meet minimum standards and more homes are needed.
The executive director of the foster care program has asked the legislature to allocate $34.5 million this year to reorganize the system, hire case workers and tackle the problems. Yoder urged people to support the allocation and praised the work Catholic Charities does to help foster children through the agency’s work in the field.
Amy Turner, director of children’s services for Catholic Charities and director of therapeutic foster care gave some statistics on how big the problem is, but said she sees hope for the families in the state. “I don’t believe the parents of every child that’s abused set out to do that. They need parenting skills,” she said. Often, she added, parents who are able to take classes and get therapy themselves can learn how to manage their own anger and stress and a family can be reunited.
She told of a case involving a five-year old who had bruises on 65 percent of her body when she came into the system from her father’s home. The child’s mother came asking for help and started therapy. “The mom was able to change her mindset. She got lots of therapy and we did family therapy,” she explained. When the mother and child were reunited, Catholic Charities was able to help set up a network of supportive services so mother and child will continue to be supported as they move forward.
The final panelist was Valerie McClelland, director of the Solomon Counseling Center. She explained that childhood trauma stays with a person for life and can be triggered at any time. The more trauma a person suffered as a child, including experiencing hunger, depression or household dysfunction, the more likely that person is to have health issues later in life. “There are a lot of hurt children walking around out there in adult bodies,” said McClelland.
“There were 25,000 reports of abuse and neglect in Mississippi last year. Only 6,200 were evidenced. That concerns me. There are not enough workers to investigate,” McClelland said.
The group headed into the cathedral for Mass, then gathered for lunch and to listen to Father Fred Kammer, SJ, director of the Jesuit Social Research Institute of Loyola University, New Orleans. Father Kammer explained the difference between progressive and regressive tax systems. The latter forces the poor to bear more of the tax burden and damages a community as a whole. He tied the idea of using a more just tax system to the issues of the day, pointing out the need for funding to heal the foster care system and the children it serves.
“As you make your visits to your senators and representatives, you have a two-part message to deliver. First, in the spirit of Pope Francis in this year of Mercy, they should know that children and the mentally ill need essential human services to be funded and protected from cuts,” said Father Kammer.
“Second, they should hear from you that the burden of taxation to pay for those services must be carried more equitably by individuals and corporations who are more able to pay for them not by the poor and struggling families. This is not about politics; it is about human dignity and the common good,” he added.
After Mass and lunch, the attendees walked over to the capitol building where Bishop Roger Morin, of the Diocese of Biloxi, led a press conference urging lawmakers to support children and those facing mental health issues.
Four teenagers from Tupelo St. James Parish attended Catholic Day at the Capitol. Each one said he or she learned something new during the event. “I learned about how children need more love and how much that has affected Mississippi and we need to do something about that,” said Hunter Lepping, a student from Saltillo High school. His friend Andrew Albers added that he feels like he can turn the lessons from the day into action back home.
“I feel like I could put more thought into what I do. That I should be more grateful for my education and that I have financial and supportive parents and that I am not in any stress at all,” said Carrie Barrett, also of Saltillo High School. She and Julianna Vaughn, a ninth grader, said their youth group already does a lot of service work, but will now take what they learned at Catholic Day home and let it influence the projects for this year. They also hope to bring more teens in the future to attend the day.
Other groups came from the Diocese of Biloxi, McComb, Jonestown, Greenwood and other communities througout the diocese.