Foster care bill offers opportunity to advocate

Complete the circle
By George Evans
I have found that advocacy on behalf of the poor and vulnerable for the common good is very difficult for most Mississippi Catholics to embrace as part of their ministry. The U.S. Catholic Bishops have repeatedly urged us to take the Gospels and Catholic social teachings into the market place and the halls of the Legislatures, both state and federal, when issues important to people’s well being present themselves. Pope Francis and his two predecessor popes have used encyclicals of great power to exhort us to such action.
Many of us are not comfortable with contacting our legislators and expressing our support or lack thereof for legislation pending before them. And even more difficult may be suggesting legislation to be introduced. We tend to want to leave those things to other people. Yet we tend at the same time to loudly proclaim the greatness of our democracy and that it was founded on Christian principles. If we believe that then we need to take the time to be heard. There are many issues which need to hear our voices.
All of this has recently come to mind again with the Catholic Day at the Capitol sponsored by Catholic Charities and its Poverty Task Force held on February 11. Much work produced an excellent program attended by approximately 85 people from around Mississippi including both bishops (Jackson and Biloxi) and a good sprinkling of priests and sisters.
Bishop Joseph Kopacz welcomed the participants, stressed the importance of their attendance and reminded them of the remarks of Pope Francis to the U.S. Congress and his call to Christian responsibility for the common good. Bishop Roger Morin presided at the news conference on the south steps of the Capitol after Mass and lunch at St. Peter’s explaining that we were there as Catholics to urge the care and protection of children and the vulnerable as part of our responsibility for the common good.
The issues considered were adequate funding for various programs, including mental health care and the child welfare system in Mississippi. Of particular concern was the state foster care program which has been so poor for years that there is a real and present danger that Judge Tom Lee, a well respected Mississippi federal judge, could possibly decide in a case before him to bring in the federal government to run the foster care program in Mississippi because of the state’s failure to properly provide services necessary to protect and otherwise provide for children placed under its care and to abide by a previous consent order it had entered into years ago in the same case.
Unless significant steps are taken in the current Legislative session Judge Lee may have no choice but to take action which could seriously embarrass the state and adversely affect its economic attractiveness to potential economic development from outside interests.
Speakers at the Cathedral who have had years of involvement with the child welfare system, including two Catholic Charities department heads, told of instance after instance of chronically over worked and grossly underpaid state social workers unable to help foster children as decency requires resulting in the state’s failure to meet basic needs ranging from inadequate health care to frank abuse, both physical and mental and even death in more than one case. The need for help by the Legislature is critical and not optional.
Funding is always a point of contention in funding child welfare programs. This year Governor Phil Bryant has finally taken a lead in responding to the foster care crisis. Perhaps the threat of a federal take over is somewhat responsible and perhaps his best nature is showing itself. Regardless, it is a great time to join in contacting our legislators, particularly our senators and urging them to vote for and support the passage of the foster care funding bill which would provide an additional 34.5 million dollars for the needed additional personnel to help move foster care forward.
We were taught by Matthew Burkhart of Catholic Relief Services in an excellent address at the Feb. 11 meeting that personal contact is the most effective advocacy tool, followed by personal letter, telephone calls, personal emails and form petitions. Please contact your senator and representative and the governor and let them know that you think that the disaster in foster care needs attention and to please pass the foster care bill. What a great way to start as an advocate.
(George Evans is a retired attorney and pastoral minister. He is a member of Jackson St. Richard Parish..)