DHS: Fostering secrets
Sun Herald presents a six-part investigation into Mississippi's child protection system

Hancock County has Mississippi's highest percentage of children in state custody.

The agency charged with the protection of those children, the Mississippi Department of Human Services, has recently faced criminal investigations, civil rights lawsuits and inquiries by a state legislative committee.

In a six-part multimedia series, the Sun Herald presents the stories of several families who say their children have been taken away based on unsubstantiated claims or errors made by the department.

Over the past 18 months, the Sun Herald has conducted exclusive interviews and filed public-records requests with several law enforcement agencies, uncovering audio recordings, court filings and thousands of pages of documents.

That evidence reveals a common theme that has led to a scandalized state department — a system of fostering secrets.

Part 1

DHS: CHapter 1

‘The very worst pain’ she ever felt

Five children were taken into state custody after their parents were accused of having unrealistic expectations of them. Jennifer and Scott Berry fought tirelessly for four months to prove their innocence, get their kids back and escape Mississippi's bureaucratic maze.

Part 2

DHS: CHapter 2

‘I will never let anyone take you’

The Berrys describe the nightmare of being separated from their five children, including missing their 1-year-old say his first word, ‘Mama.’

Part 3

DHS: CHapter 3

A ‘disturbing’ allegation of forgery

A single mother from rural Hancock County walked into the sheriff’s office in 2015 with a stack of documents, which she said proved a child-services worker had forged a document and used it to take away her child.

Part 4

DHS: CHapter 4

A familiar story revives a cold case

Another Hancock County mom walked into the sheriff's office in 2015 with a story that struck a familiar chord with investigators. She said two child-services workers had falsified documents in an attempt to take her kids.

Part 5

DHS: CHapter 5

Sexually abused in state custody

After receiving a phone call urging her to come to the hospital, a mother discovered her two children, ages 1 and 2, had been sexually abused and infected with gonorrhea while in state custody.

Part 6

DHS: CHapter 6

Managing children’s lives

A caseworker and supervisor at the Mississippi Department of Human Services' Hancock County office talk about the stresses and challenges of managing a large caseload with children’s lives hanging in the balance.

About the team

Wesley Muller joined the Sun Herald newsroom in 2014, serving as a general assignment and investigative reporter. The New Orleans native began his journalism career as a contributing writer for the Times-Picayune and later a staff writer for the Enterprise-Journal in McComb.
Much of his work involves First Amendment and freedom of information coverage with regard to municipal and state government policy.
In 2016, he received the Margaret Dixon FOI Award from the Associated Press and the Daniel M. Phillips FOI Award from the Mississippi Press Association.

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John Fitzhugh has been a photojournalist at the Sun Herald for 29 years. He has covered many significant South Mississippi stories, including the 1987 Vincent and Margaret Sherry murders in Biloxi, 2005's Hurricane Katrina and Mississippi Department of Marine Resources corruption in 2013-14.
A graduate of the University of Florida, he previously worked at the Winter Haven (Fla.) News Chief.
He has won numerous state and regional awards for his photography, including the Mississippi Press Association Photo of the Year in 2005.

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