Hinds County

Welfare scandal: New asked for help before arrests

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‘Whipping child’: Nancy New asked highest officials for help before arrests in welfare scandal

In the days and weeks leading up to their arrests in early 2020, Nancy New and her son Zach New sought help from Mississippi’s highest officials to stop what they described as their persecution.

Private text messages obtained by Mississippi Today show the News reacting with a combination of hubris, a sense of betrayal and even confusion over their plight. 

The News had been in charge of spending tens of millions of federal welfare dollars in Mississippi, but the state didn’t hire their nonprofit to provide tangible resources to the poor. Instead, it was to run a private referral center, while the state would use the nonprofit as its piggy bank for projects it couldn’t find funding for elsewhere. 

In many cases, these programs occurred out in the open. The welfare agency’s partnership with a Christian ministry run by WWE wrestlers was written into plans shared with the federal government. A $5 million lease agreement that paid for construction of a new volleyball stadium under the guise that people in poverty would attend courses at the facility was included in board meeting minutes and approved by the Institutes of Higher Learning and the attorney general’s office. And Nancy New’s financing of a private pharmaceutical firm was explained in text messages that retired NFL quarterback Brett Favre sent to the state’s highest official, then-Gov. Phil Bryant.

That could help explain why the News seemed surprised to find themselves the subject of a probe that officials eventually called the largest public embezzlement bust in state history. In Nancy New’s many roles, she was often carrying out the vision of Gov. Bryant and his wife, Deborah Bryant. 

In her panic to shut down the investigation, Nancy New secured a meeting with then-U.S. Attorney Mike Hurst, according to the text messages and a source with knowledge of the meeting. She seemed to hope that the federal prosecutor could provide her information about the probe. 

“It has passed [sic] time to turn the other cheek,” Nancy New wrote to her two sons the evening of Jan. 25, 2020. “First, though, we have [to] make it through this and get this stopped, get cleared of their harassment, etc. then we will go after them all. It will obviously take a lot of money and time but we may need to go on and file once we find out what Mike Hurst says.”

These never-before-published text messages shed light on the incredulous attitudes of the defendants and their last attempts to save themselves before the scandal broke. After Mississippi Today’s “The Backchannel” series published in April, the News pleaded guilty to several counts including bribery, fraud, wire fraud and racketeering under a favorable plea deal that allows them to avoid any time in state prison as long as they cooperate with the ongoing investigation.

Still, the pleas were a massive fall for a family that had been so politically connected. 

Nancy New was such a close friend to Deborah Bryant that on the same day she plotted with her sons to “go after” her detractors, she lent some of her clothes to the First Lady to try on. Nancy New arranged delivery of the items to the house of the governor’s daughter, Katie Bryant Snell, in text messages with her son Zach New days before their arrests. In explaining the messages, Bryant’s public relations consultant told Mississippi Today that Deborah Bryant had told Nancy New she was getting ready for a trip and had nothing to wear. Close enough to share clothes, it’s unclear what the Bryant family may have discussed with the News about the ongoing investigation. Zach New and Bryant’s son-in-law Stephen Snell were also included in a friendly group message where the men mostly discussed sports.

At that time, the News were aware they were being investigated. They knew their nonprofit’s finances were in disarray. But they didn’t know they were about to be accused of embezzling more than $4 million in federal welfare dollars to use for their private school company and to make investments in Favre’s pharmaceutical venture called Prevacus.

Then-U.S. Attorney Hurst didn’t know it either, because even though the scandal involved federal funds and eventual charges of racketeering – which usually signals the kind of organized crime that the FBI investigates – the Office of the State Auditor made the initial arrests before involving the federal authorities. The auditor’s office carried out the preceding eight-month investigation on its own and turned to a local district attorney to indict.

The auditor who initially investigated the welfare case, Shad White, is a Bryant appointee and former campaign manager with higher political aspirations.

While the auditor was closing in on the News, Bryant was preparing to accept shares in Prevacus, according to text messages Mississippi Today first reported, the company to which Nancy New had illegally funneled welfare funds.

Hours after leaving office in mid-January 2020, Bryant promised to “get on it hard” in making connections for Prevacus. Within weeks, Bryant officially joined the consulting firm his daughter and former chief of staff Joey Songy recently formed.

Right up until the arrests, Bryant was consulting Prevacus and helping it secure an important investor who was one of the new firm’s clients.

The texts also show Favre had told Bryant that Prevacus was working with welfare officials and receiving funds from Mississippi. Bryant backed out of the deal after the New arrests.  

Prosecutors say the investigation is ongoing, but three years after it began, they have yet to publicly scrutinize the former governor’s deal with Prevacus. 

Though dozens of people received money they shouldn’t have, and dozens more played some role in funneling the money away from the poor, the auditor’s office and Hinds County District Attorney’s Office selected six people to charge criminally. Neither state nor federal authorities have arrested anyone else related to the scheme.

“Doug, Families First and we, are truly being railroaded,” Nancy New sent in a message in late January to Doug Davis, U.S. Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith’s chief of staff.

In 2016, Mississippi Department of Human Services selected Nancy New’s nonprofit, Mississippi Community Education Center, and another nonprofit called Family Resource Center of North Mississippi to head up the rapid expansion of an anti-poverty program called Families First for Mississippi. With that came a cash flow of tens of millions of dollars in grant funds that they would use to carry out official state plans under then-welfare director John Davis, appointed by Phil Bryant. 

This included funding religious initiatives and rallies featuring famous athletes who were earning millions of dollars from the welfare department. Despite being included in official state plans shared with the federal government, these programs are now considered central to the biggest welfare spending scandal in state history. The money came from a ‘90s-era federal welfare program with lax oversight and a reputation for being a slush fund. Soon, the spending spun out of control.

In mid-2019, John Davis’ deputy Jacob Black and other employees gathered information about how John Davis was paying retired WWE wrestler Brett DiBiase for work he didn’t conduct and possibly double dipping the welfare department for a program run by Teddy DiBiase Jr. 

Black himself was instrumental in creating many of the questionable grants and the auditor recently served him a civil demand to repay the state $3 million. But Black was also the original source of the tip that Shad White has credited with toppling the scheme. Black took the tip to Bryant, who took the information to Shad White, according to MDHS officials, Bryant staffers and other sources. 

Shad White has maintained that Bryant was the whistleblower of the scandal, crediting the former governor for toppling the scheme.

Within a few months, the auditor’s examination of John Davis’ welfare spending led them to the New nonprofit. The auditor raided Mississippi Community Education Center’s offices in October 2019 and the Mississippi Department of Human Services restricted funding to the nonprofit, jeopardizing vendors who were relying on their reimbursement.

“Our lives and office have been turned upside down for over 3 months now and we deserve answers,” Nancy New’s other son, Jess New, local attorney and director of the Mississippi Oil and Gas Board, said in a text.

While he was never included in criminal charges, Jess New had his hand in business operations at the nonprofit and other MDHS offshoots John Davis was attempting to create, according to a recently filed lawsuit. The civil lawsuit, filed by MDHS, seeks $2.6 million in damages from Jess New, which is included as part of the $19.4 million the suit is asking from his mother. 

In early January 2020, the owner of Prevacus received a subpoena from the auditor’s office for documents related to the stock he offered the News in exchange for their grant funding, according to text messages and documents Mississippi Today obtained. On Jan. 15, 2020, Gov. Tate Reeves took office. 

In the next few weeks, the News scrambled to get information about the investigation and why they weren’t receiving payment from MDHS. They thought Phil Bryant and his newly appointed welfare director, Christopher Freeze, made the call to freeze their nonprofit’s funding before he left office. 

“PB and CF made the decision to freeze the money. Definitely looks like the organization and lord knows who else will be charged for something…..no idea what,” Jess New wrote on Jan. 25, 2020.

“Geez all the hard work just to be thrown under the bus,” Zach New responded.

Jess New told his brother that Christie Webb, the operator of the Family Resource Center, the other nonprofit that was spending welfare money wildly, had reached out to ask Congressman Trent Kelly to release their funding from MDHS.

Kelly’s representative Susan Parker told Mississippi Today in a statement that his office has “no knowledge of what happened between the Mississippi Department of Human Services and the Family Resource Center beyond published reports.”

“After discovering there was an ongoing investigation into the Family Resource center, our office refrained from getting involved in this issue,” she wrote.

The north Mississippi nonprofit has since lost its MDHS funding altogether.

The News had also reached out to Brad White, who was heading up Reeves’ transition as his chief of staff. Zach asked his brother, “BW against us?”

“No he’s just in the middle,” Jess New responded. “They know it’s a f’ed up situation and PB’s the issue.”

Brad White told Mississippi Today that, to the best of his recollection, two groups reached out to the Reeves transition team, including people on behalf of judges who were using some of the funds to help children in the court system. The two nonprofits who ran Families First, Nancy New and Webb’s nonprofits, had been at odds with each other in the last year. The two nonprofits were also responsible for the programmatic side of a judicial initiative called Family First, which aimed to revamp the state’s foster care system by providing more preventative services. The initiative, headed up by Deborah Bryant, crumbled during the investigation.

“I know enough about things from my time at the auditor’s office that you don’t get involved in anything remotely involved with an investigation,” Brad White said. “I think it was like, ‘I wish you the best, and there’s nothing I can do.’”

Brad White said both the New contingent and the judges wanted help in unfreezing their funds, but that he told them the transition team could not help with that and that the new administration would follow any recommendations or guidance from the state auditor’s office on the case.

The News were left speculating what exactly they were in trouble for, who was against them and why their funding was cut off.

“Because we’re being investigated is why. We need someone to investigate the investigators and this BS investigation,” Jess New texted his mother on Jan. 26, 2020. “It’s a witch hunt and blatant harassment.”

In the following days, Nancy New took her associate David Kelly, a consultant for Oxford-based low-income real estate developer Chartre Consulting, to meet with Hurst. 

New’s organization had promised to provide classes and resource referrals to the residents of Chartre’s properties. The partnership allowed New’s nonprofit to increase the headcount of people served through Families First, but the program struggled to persuade residents to truly participate, Chartre Consulting owner Clarence Chapman told Mississippi Today. The services amounted to Families First hosting events where they gave away free hot dogs.

“It didn’t penetrate as much as we would have liked, but that’s just the nature of our residents and that income level. But they (Nancy New’s nonprofit) worked hard to get participation and I wish they’d still have this underway where it could benefit our residents,” Chapman said.

He sees the News as victims of Bryant and Davis’ vague plan to turn the state’s welfare system into a resource referral network instead of providing direct aid.

“It’s a shame the way the regulations are written to let the governor use the money like that and then poor Nancy, who was a very respectable person, has been abused by the system,” he continued. “She got way over her head and didn’t realize what she was dealing with and is the whipping child for a bunch of different reasons here and it’s destroyed her and her finances. And it’s sad, because she’s a good person … She appears to be used as a conduit to spread money and do what others wanted done with it who had the authority to do that.”

Someone with knowledge of the meeting said that Hurst, two assistant U.S. attorneys and an FBI agent met with Nancy New and David Kelly, and New’s attorney attended by phone. David Kelly initially agreed to an interview with Mississippi Today and then stopped responding to calls and messages.

If Nancy New chose to meet with Hurst in an attempt to avoid prosecution, it didn’t work. Instead, it tipped off federal authorities to White’s investigation and caused them to reach out to the auditor for more information. 

Then, Jess New got some new information.

“Don’t think PB suspended our funds….I’ll explain later,” he texted on Feb. 3, 2020, the day before a Hinds County grand jury handed down the indictments, referring to Phil Bryant. “Still may not hurt to reach out to him for any help.”

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Teachers: 17% left their district in 2020-21 school year

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‘It was an easy choice for me’: 17% of teachers left their district in the 2020-21 school year

Jasmine Cleark-Gibson left teaching last month after seven and a half years in the classroom. It was time for a change. The lack of autonomy in her job made her feel like “she couldn’t fix things anymore,” and the myriad of responsibilities placed on her as an educator also left her with no bandwidth to care for her own children. 

“I found myself with nothing left to give to the people who are supposed to matter the most to me,” Cleark-Gibson said. “I was looking for a work-life balance that all people are trying to grasp, but nobody is respecting teachers enough to give them.” 

Mississippi has suffered from a critical teacher shortage for years, one that has only recently been measured. The Department of Education announced in December 2021 that there were over 3,000 certified teacher vacancies, a staggering figure considering that there are about 32,000 teachers across the state. 

Teachers and policymakers have long emphasized the need for competitive salaries to attract more teachers to Mississippi, a goal that saw progress this year when the Legislature passed the largest teacher pay raise in Mississippi history, putting Mississippi teachers above the Southeastern average.  

Despite these improvements, teachers in Mississippi are still leaving the classroom to teach in other states or take jobs in other fields. Data from the Mississippi Department of Education shows 5,800 teachers left their district at the end of the 2020-21 school year, or 17% of all teachers. These teachers may have moved between districts or left the profession entirely — this distinction is not captured in the MDE data.

Cleark-Gibson found her way to teaching through an alternate route program at Mississippi Valley State University, and taught English in the Leflore County School District, Midtown Public Charter School, and the Hinds County School District. 

She said she loved helping students reach the “lightbulb moment” and building relationships with students, since “they don’t care about the content until they know you care about them.”

But the pressures that are put on teachers — like countless meetings that take time away from lesson planning and the responsibility to be in tune with each student’s social and emotional well-being — left Cleark-Gibson overwhelmed. 

For Chevonne Dixon, a fifteen-year veteran of the Mississippi public education system, the time constraints were still a real concern, but the biggest factor was money. Dixon is a resident of DeSoto county but drives across the border to teach in Memphis, where she makes more and gets paid twice a month. 

“During the pandemic, I started filling out applications and I saw that I could actually live off of what I would be making in Memphis … so it was an easy choice for me,” she said. 

Dixon also highlighted the pressure that student loans put on teachers to seek higher-paying opportunities, something that Mississippi First K-12 Policy Director Toren Ballard has also been researching. Mississippi First published a report in January that found over half of Mississippi teachers were considering leaving the classroom within the next year. 

They surveyed 6,500 Mississippi teachers, data Ballard has continued digging into and has noticed some stark disparities. Teachers with student debt are twice as likely to be SNAP recipients and over twice as likely to not have $400 in case of an emergency. 

But that student debt also isn’t distributed evenly across the state. Ballard found that one in four teachers in F-rated districts owe over $100,000 in student debt, while only 4-5% of teachers in A and B-rated districts do. Poorly rated districts are also more likely to have teachers not return year-over-year, according to the data from MDE. 

“Teaching in Mississippi, obviously everyone’s salaries are low, but it’s a very inequitable profession even given that,” Ballard said. “People are experiencing wildly different financial realities.” 

The Mississippi First report found that over 90% of teachers thinking about leaving the classroom cited salaries as their reason, but respect from administrators came close behind. Amelia Watson, who taught for two and half years in the Petal and Pearl Public School Districts, said she was stretching herself thin to be the teacher she, and school leaders, wanted her to be. 

“I was meeting the expectations of my administrators, but it was nearly impossible to do so during contract hours,” Watson said.  “I wasn’t willing anymore to sacrifice my free time and my mental well-being, unpaid, for a job that doesn’t celebrate our achievements.” 

Watson said her husband and co-workers noticed her mental declining during her third year, which led to her resignation. She has considered going back, but has found a great deal of stability in the boundaries of her current job as a recruitment coordinator, and said she wasn’t sure teaching would ever be able to give that to her. 

As for Dixon, the teacher in Memphis, she’s not planning to leave the profession any time soon. When asked if the most recent pay raise made Dixon reconsider taking a job out of state, she said no. She said that the salaries still aren’t where they should be, and that getting paid once a month necessitates being a strong budgeter — but if Mississippi were to fix those things, she would return. 

“My (plan) was to teach and retire in Mississippi, but I can’t afford to,” she said.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Hinds County reported 679 additional COVID-19 cases this week

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rssfeeds.clarionledger.com – Mississippi Clarion Ledger – 2022-06-16 10:07:17

Drivers wait to be tested for COVID-19 at a testing site on Woodrow Wilson Avenue in Jackson on Thursday, Jan. 6, 2022. Mississippi ranked 40th among the states where coronavirus was spreading the fastest on a per-person basis, according to an analysis of data from Johns Hopkins University.

New coronavirus cases leaped in Mississippi in the week ending Sunday, rising 23.3% as 4,495 cases were reported. The previous week had 3,646 new cases of the virus that causes COVID-19.

Mississippi ranked 40th among the states where coronavirus was spreading the fastest on a per-person basis, a USA TODAY Network analysis of Johns Hopkins University data shows. In the latest week coronavirus…

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Rep. Thompson’s unadopted redistricting plan could have cost Rep. Guest his seat

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Rep. Thompson’s unadopted redistricting plan could have cost Rep. Guest his seat

If the state chapter of the NAACP and U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson had gotten their way, little known Naval pilot Michael Cassidy of Meridian could be the Republican nominee for the 3rd District U.S. House seat right now — or at least much closer to being the nominee.

Cassidy won more votes in the three-candidate field during last week’s Republican primary election than did incumbent 3rd District U.S. Rep. Michael Guest, but did not garner the majority of the vote needed to avoid a runoff. The runoff will be June 28.

While Cassidy won the most votes districtwide, Guest, a resident of Rankin County, defeated Cassidy in the metro Jackson counties of Hinds, Madison and Rankin. During congressional redistricting earlier this year, Thompson, the lone Democratic member of the state’s congressional delegation, and the state chapter of the NAACP proposed the portion of Hinds County in the 3rd District and some of south Madison County in the 3rd District be moved to Thompson’s 2nd District.

The Legislature must redraw congressional districts every 10 years based on the U.S. Census to ensure the population of each district is evenly distributed. If state lawmakers had accepted the proposal of Thompson and the NAACP, it would have placed Guest perilously close to losing outright to Cassidy in last week’s Republican primary.

Of course, if Hinds and a portion of Madison County had been removed from the 3rd District, additional people would have had to be added from other areas to make up for the population loss. So it is difficult to say with certainty what the final impact on the election results would have been if all of Hinds and a portion of Madison had been moved from the 3rd District to the 2nd District.

Most likely, the reconfiguration of the 3rd District under the NAACP/Thompson plan still would have resulted in a runoff, but Cassidy would have been closer to avoiding a runoff and would have made life even more uncomfortable for Guest.

At any rate, Guest finds himself in the unenviable position of being an incumbent facing a runoff election. Conventional wisdom is that if an incumbent cannot capture a majority vote in the first election, it will be difficult to do so in a runoff. But the 2014 Senate election in Mississippi proves that it is not an impossible task for an incumbent.

In the 2014 campaign for the U.S. Senate seat in Mississippi, little known state Sen. Chris McDaniel garnered 49.5% of the vote and was less than 3,500 votes short of capturing a majority and upending longtime incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran in the Republican primary.

After that near upset, much of the Republican establishment went to work in support of Cochran, who was considered an icon in Mississippi politics. In addition, many believed Cochran’s seniority in Washington was too valuable for the state to lose.

Normally in runoff elections, the total number of people voting is significantly less than in the first election. But in the Cochran/McDaniel runoff, almost 65,000 more people voted than in the first election. With the large number of additional people coming to the polls, Cochran retained the seat with 51% of the vote.

At the time, McDaniel complained and even filed a lawsuit, claiming people who normally vote Democratic came to the polls to cast a ballot for Cochran in the runoff. Many of these people, he said, were from the city of Jackson or most likely African Americans who normally vote Democratic.

Indeed, anecdotal evidence did indicate that many Black Mississippians, who normally do vote Democratic, weighed all options and decided that they would prefer Cochran over McDaniel, a conservative firebrand, so they went to the polls to vote for the incumbent in the runoff.

McDaniel complained that such a practice is not fair. But in reality, under Mississippi law, people who did not vote in the first primary election can cast a ballot in the runoff.

This past Tuesday, about 50,000 people voted in the 3rd District Republican primary. In the 2018 Republican primary when Guest first was elected, 65,207 people voted.

For the June 28 runoff, Guest and much of the Republican establishment will be looking to find some of those people who voted in 2018 but did not in 2022 to come out and vote for Guest.

In the 2014 Senate runoff, Cochran and his forces found many of those new voters for the runoff in metro Jackson. More than likely, Guest also will be looking hard in metro Jackson for new voters.

But if Thompson and the NAACP had prevailed with their redistricting plan, there would be fewer votes for Guest to pick up in metro Jackson.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Nonprofit aims to open state’s first birth center

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Nonprofit aims to open Mississippi’s first birth center

After giving birth to her first child in a hospital in January 2019, Jasmine Williams knew she never wanted to go through that experience again.

The constant flow of doctors and nurses entering and leaving her room, the needles and beeping machines only added extra stress to a situation that’s intense enough on its own, she said. 

The worst part for Williams was the epidural, where anesthetic is injected into the space around the spinal nerves in the lower back to block the pain from contractions. The procedure numbed Williams and made her feel like she was just a passenger for her own delivery. 

“I didn’t necessarily know what the doctors and nurses were down there doing,” Williams, who lives in Jackson, said. “I couldn’t feel anything, and that scared me.”

When she got pregnant again later that year, Williams decided to look into another option: home birth. She was living in Georgia at the time and contacted Meka Hall, a local midwife, and was told she could safely deliver a baby from the comfort of her home and avoid the negative experiences she’d had with her first birth. It’s an option she wished known about the first time around. 

 “Everything was so new, and the only thing that I knew to do was to go to the hospital,” Wiliams said. 

The relationship Williams and her husband, Jabriel, developed with Hall was much closer than any they’d had with hospital staff during her first delivery.

Williams also appreciated the ability to have a water birth, where at least part of a mother’s labor, delivery or both occur in a birthing pool filled with warm water. Williams says it helped greatly with the pain of cramping caused by contractions.

“I was a lot more present,” Williams said. “It was a lot more intimate. You actually know what’s going on.”

The home birthing experience was much smoother for Williams, and she hasn’t looked back since. After moving back to Mississippi and becoming pregnant with her third child in 2021, Williams decided to enlist the help of the Jackson-based nonprofit public health organization, Sisters in Birth, for her second home birth.

Sisters in Birth (SIB) pairs community health workers with low-income women, primarily Medicaid beneficiaries, to provide support during and after their pregnancies. SIB uses evidence-based practices with the goal of reducing birth disparities in Mississippi.

 A community health worker visited Williams at home each week to make sure she was attending all her prenatal care visits, eating well and exercising regularly. 

“It was a very big help and kept me on track (for a healthy home birth),” Williams said.

When she gave birth in September 2021, a Mississippi-based midwife helped her through the process while Hall, the Georgia midwife she used before, tuned in via Zoom. The actual delivery only took a few minutes, as compared to an hours-long delivery process for her hospital birth.

Now, Getty Israel, SIB’s founder and program director, wants to expand on the work done by her organization by opening Mississippi’s first birth center. The centers serve women with low-risk pregnancies and act as a compromise between hospital births and home births. 

“Women deserve to have an alternative to the hospital setting,” Israel said. “I have patients who said they’re going to deliver at home with or without a midwife. And I have patients who have delivered at home without a provider being there. They did so safely, but they shouldn’t have to.”

The number of birth centers in the United States has more than doubled in the last decade. As of January 2021, there were 400 birth centers across 40 states and the District of Columbia, according to the American Association of Birth Centers. Mississippi is one of the 10 states without one.

“We’re so far behind (in Mississippi). This should have happened 40 years ago,” Yolanda Davis, a community health worker at SIB, said.

If SIB were to open a birth center, the organization would need a transfer agreement with a hospital so that patients could be moved to a hospital setting in the case of an emergency. The group currently has a memorandum of understanding with University of Mississippi Medical Center, a nonbinding agreement that states the two parties intend to form a partnership. Israel says the agreement will be made official if SIB opens the birth center.

UMMC officials declined to answer questions about the medical community’s perception of home births and birth centers. 

Birth centers remain controversial due to conflicting accounts of safety. Not yet peer-reviewed research presented at The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) conference in 2021 showed that birth center deliveries are associated with a higher risk of infant death and seizures than hospital births attended by midwives. 

On the other hand, a government-financed study in 2012 found that Medicaid beneficiaries who used birth centers saw lower rates of preterm birth, low birthweight and Cesarean deliveries (C-sections) when compared to other Medicaid participants who gave birth. 

The lack of regulation around midwifery care in Mississippi also adds risk to births outside of the hospital setting, as anyone can claim to be a midwife, even if they lack formal training and experience. Because of the lack of regulation, midwives who lost their right to practice midwifery in other states are free to work in Mississippi. 

Mississippi is one of 14 states and the District of Columbia that does not regulate or license direct-entry midwives, who have become credentialed without first becoming a nurse. However, certified nurse-midwives are licensed as advanced practice registered nurses.

Melinda Thigpen, a direct-entry midwife from Bay Springs who has attended an estimated 300 to 400 births since 1999, said that the lack of regulation does present dangers, but that it also grants midwives freedom in how they practice. 

“The regulation of midwives in Mississippi would mean that we were able to weed out those who just simply call themselves midwives, but do not have actual formal training … that would be beneficial,” Thigpen said. “But on the flip side, if we as midwives lose our autonomy, then our clients also lose their autonomy. The care that we’re able to give is dictated rather than individualized.”

Though the number of home births has increased in recent years, the vast majority of births still occur in the hospital setting. Of the more than 35,000 births Mississippi recorded in 2020, just 152, or 0.42%, were intended home births, according to CDC data. 

Israel is currently looking at land in rural areas of Hinds County to purchase for the center, both because the land itself will be cheap and so the center can qualify as a rural health clinic. This would make it somewhat of an outlier among birth centers, as they often avoid locating in rural, low-income areas due to high out-of-pocket costs and low reimbursement rates from Medicaid and private insurers. 

Israel estimates it will cost $3 million to make the center fully operational. That estimate includes $150,000 for land and $1,000,000 to build the center. The remainder will go toward hiring midwives and community health workers. She’s hoping that purchasing the land soon will help with fundraising efforts to get the center built. 

“Having a plot of land with a sign that says ‘birth center coming soon’ makes it more real for people,” Israel said. 

Israel began publicly fundraising for the birth center after several attempts to get state COVID-19 relief funding failed. State Sen. Albert Butler, D-Port Gibson, read a proposal for funding she submitted to the Legislature and then introduced a bill that would have given Sisters in Birth $1.5 million from the state’s Coronavirus State Fiscal Recovery Funds. The bill died in the appropriations committee. 

Efforts to federally fund birth centers have also failed to gain steam. The BABIES Act would require the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) to establish a prospective payment system (PPS) that would reimburse birth centers for prenatal, perinatal and postpartum care for mothers and infants.

The BABIES Act was introduced both in 2019 and 2021, but never advanced. U.S. Rep. Benny Thompson was the only congressman from Mississippi to co-sponsor the legislation, though Israel says she lobbied the state’s three Republican congressmen to support the bill. 

Since the leak of a draft Supreme Court opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade, there has been an increase in rhetoric among politicians at the state and national levels about the need to increase support for pregnant moms and babies. In Mississippi, the rhetoric has for the most part not been matched by policy proposals.  

In March, Speaker of the House Philip Gunn killed legislation that would have extended health care coverage for new moms from 60 days to one year. About 60% of births in Mississippi are covered by Medicaid, one of the highest percentages in the nation.

“Those pro-life legislators, those hypocrites, who want to make sure women don’t have an abortion, but they won’t support something as simple as a birthing center so they can have a healthy birth – what are they talking about?” Israel said. “If we really care about saving the lives of babies, you’d want to give them access to a midwife.”

Mississippi is consistently ranked as one of the worst states to have a baby due to its poor health care system. More children born in Mississippi, per capita, do not live to see their first birthday than anywhere else in the nation. Mississippi’s infant mortality rate is the highest in the nation at 8.27 deaths per 1,000 live births.

The state also has the highest rate in the nation of children living in extreme poverty.

Mississippi mothers die in 33.2 of every 100,000 births — nearly two times higher than the U.S. average. Black moms in the state are three times more likely to die than white moms.  Many experts believe Mississippi’s lack of prenatal care contributes greatly to this statistic.

Israel said that the work SIB and other organizations in Mississippi do to tackle birth disparities is undervalued and overlooked by political leaders. The work they’re doing saves taxpayer money, but they get no investment in return.

 “When we prevent one premature baby, we’re saving the state a hell of a lot of money,” Israel said.

A premature birth costs $41,610, compared to a full term birth’s $2,830, according to data from University of Mississippi Medical Center

Two of the organization’s largest goals are reducing the rates of C-sections and labor induction, both of which increase the risk of further birth and recovery complications. 

Israel views medically unnecessary inductions of labor as a harmful intervention of a natural process.

“It’s about the doctor’s schedule and not about nature’s schedule,” Israel said.

C-sections can save the lives of mothers and babies during dangerous deliveries caused by conditions such placenta previa, where the opening of the cervix is obstructed, or when a baby is in a breech position. However, C-sections come with greater risks than vaginal births, including a higher risk of death. 

Even a relatively uncomplicated C-section comes with a longer and more difficult recovery for mothers than a vaginal birth. 

C-section deliveries are thought to be overused in the United States. Since 1985, the World Health Organization has considered the ideal rate for C-section births to be between 10% to 15%. More than 31% of all deliveries in the U.S. were by C-section in 2020 and 25.6% of low-risk pregnancies resulted in a C-section, according to data from the CDC.

The prevalence of C-sections is higher in Mississippi. C-sections were used during 38.5% of births in Mississippi in 2020, giving the state the highest rate in the nation for these deliveries.  According to the Mississippi maternal mortality review committee’s 2019 report, 65%of women who died after giving birth delivered by repeat C-section.

In Israel’s view, the overuse of C-section deliveries is motivated by financial incentives and expediency. 

“C-sections are a cash cow for hospitals,” Israel said. “With induction and C-sections, doctors often do not have a discussion with black women about this. They don’t engage them and allow them to help make that medical decision. They just decide for them.”

According to a report released in May 2020 by Health Care Cost Institute, average spending for a C-section birth was nearly $5,000 higher than spending for a vaginal birth for people with employer-sponsored insurance. Physicians are paid on average 15% more for a C-section than a vaginal delivery. 

Studies have also shown that during the work week, non-medical factors appear to affect the time of deliveries. C-sections spike around morning, lunchtime, and the end of the day, which some see as evidence that doctor’s decisions are motivated, at least in part, by scheduling conflicts rather than purely medical considerations. 

Thigpen says that popular misconceptions about what a midwife does is a factor in their work being undervalued by politicians and the general public.

“I tell people all the time, they don’t hire me just to blow up a pool, light candles or rub their back,” Thigpen said. “They hire me for the very few times where something does come up that is more concerning, and that’s when I jump in to use the skills that I’ve learned.”

Thigpen also thinks that there’s a fundamental difference between how doctors and midwives view the birthing process. She’s grateful for hospitals and doctors but believes that the medical community needs to do a better job of accepting those differences and working with midwives to help ensure better outcomes, no matter what delivery method a mother chooses.

“The medical community tends to look at birth as a medical event that may occasionally happen naturally,” Thigpen said. “And as a midwife, I look at birth as a natural event that may occasionally need medical help.”

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Jackson-area homes for sale drop to $138,000 median price

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rssfeeds.clarionledger.com – Mississippi Clarion Ledger – 2022-05-30 21:02:34

Brick streets surround a tree-lined median in the Village at Madison, located in the Historic Main Street area of Madison, Miss., Wednesday, March 16, 2022. Construction is ongoing at the 25-acre commercial/residential development that will include restaurants, retail, office space and 75 single-family homes.

A typical Hinds County home listed for $138,000 in April, down 16.4% from a month earlier, an analysis of data from Realtor.com shows.

The median list home price in April was down about 25.8% from April 2021. Hinds County’s median home was 1,729 square feet for a listed price of $91 per square foot.

The Hinds County market was busy, with a median 35 days on market. A month earlier, homes had a…

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Philip Gunn’s connection to the Southern Baptist Convention sexual abuse scandal

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Philip Gunn’s connection to the Southern Baptist Convention sexual abuse scandal

Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn was closely involved in one of the harrowing stories featured in an explosive investigation into the mishandling of sexual abuse within Southern Baptist Convention churches.

The 300-page report, made public by the nation’s largest Protestant denomination this week, reveals that top Southern Baptist leaders across the nation systemically mishandled sexual abuse claims, often working to cover them up and suppress victims and their families. The report was compiled by a third-party firm, which scrutinized more than 20 years of sexual abuse accusations in Southern Baptist churches across the nation.

A Mississippi case involving a decades-long coverup and high-ranking Baptist officials defending an abuser was highlighted in the report. Though Gunn is not named in the report, his involvement as an attorney in the case was scrutinized broadly by the state and national press and even Southern Baptist-focused and other religious outlets.

John Langworthy, a former music minister at Morrison Heights Baptist Church in Clinton, resigned from the church in 2011 after admitting that he sexually abused young boys when he worked at two Mississippi Baptist churches in the 1980s and then in a Texas Baptist church.

Gunn, who has served in leadership roles at Morrison Heights, was the church’s attorney as Langworthy’s case played out in the courts and in the public sphere. The speaker was unable to be reached for comment regarding this article.

Langworthy was first accused of abusing a teenage boy at a Texas Baptist megachurch in 1989. But that church’s pastor Jack Graham, who once served a stint as president of the Southern Baptist Convention, allowed Langworthy to be dismissed quietly and did not report the abuse to at the time, the report said.

Langworthy immediately moved back to Mississippi, where he landed a job in 1990 as music minister at Morrison Heights and later as a choir teacher at Clinton High School. Langworthy held those jobs until 2011, when details of his abuse were first made public. 

Amy Smith, an advocate for child abuse survivors who had worked in 1989 at the Texas church where Langworthy was first accused, worked for months starting in 2010 to get Morrison Heights church leaders — and really anyone else — to hear her story about the Texas accusations of Langworthy. Smith told a blogger the story about Langworthy’s Texas abuse allegation and the ensuing coverup at the Texas church, and the blog published that information in June 2011.

With the accusations made public via the blog, Langworthy confessed to the Morrison Heights congregation in August 2011 that he abused children during his time in Texas and while he was in Mississippi before that. Smith then shared video of Langworthy’s confession with journalists in Texas and Mississippi, and the story was broadcast. Several victims of Langworthy’s saw those news reports and alerted authorities. In September 2011, he was indicted in Hinds County on charges of sexually abusing five boys ages 6-13 in Jackson and Clinton between 1980 and 1984.

Hinds County Assistant District Attorney Jamie McBride told the Clarion Ledger at the time that an investigation showed Langworthy was “involved heavily with the youth choirs from 1980 to 1984 at First Baptist Church of Jackson and Daniel Memorial Baptist Church in Jackson.”

When Langworthy confessed to the abuse in 2011, Gunn was set to become one of Mississippi’s most powerful political leaders as speaker of the House. But that same year, Gunn had become ensnared in the church scandal.

Gunn was publicly accused of trying to cover up Langworthy’s abuse before his confession and indictment. Amy Smith, the Texas church staffer who first disclosed details of Langworthy’s earlier abuse to the blogger, told Mississippi reporters in 2011 that she heard from Gunn three months before Langworthy publicly admitted to the abuse and four months before he was indicted.

Gunn emailed Smith in May 2011 “to discuss a resolution,” he wrote. Smith declined to speak with Gunn and perceived his email as an effort to sweep the allegations under the rug.

“Seems to me like he was asking to offer me something to go away to be quiet and that was not acceptable to me, that’s not protecting children and I simply said no,” Smith told WJTV at the time.

After Smith refused to speak with him, Gunn reportedly contacted another advocate who was also publicly discussing Langworthy’s past crimes. Sherry LeFils, a former Texas probation officer who worked with thousands of sex offenders, said at the time that she had three phone conversations with Gunn regarding Langworthy’s case. She told WJTV that one phone call, in particular, struck her as odd.

“My take was what we can do to make this right, to make this go away,” LeFils told WJTV.

Gunn also faced broad public scrutiny for advising Morrison Heights church leaders to not talk with the Hinds County District Attorney’s investigators about what Langworthy told them about his alleged child sex abuse. To back up that counsel, Gunn cited a “priest-penitent privilege” law — which legal scholars later said was not relevant to the case.

“What I’m telling you is that the elders are bound by privilege. Under the law, there’s a legal privilege that attaches. Are there no exceptions to that? No, there are no exceptions to that,” Gunn said in a WJTV interview in 2011.

Smith, who prosecutors later credited with the work that ultimately inspired Langworthy’s victims to come forward, blistered Gunn publicly for that position.

“It is very troubling that Philip Gunn as the legal representative for Morrison Heights Baptist Church is trying to keep information from Hinds County prosecutors about a recently arrested and indicted child molester on whose behalf Gunn attempted to ‘discuss a resolution’ with me last May,” Smith said in November 2011.

Gunn and other church leaders maintained they found no evidence that Langworthy abused children in his 21 years as music minister at Morrison Heights. But what church leaders knew was never divulged publicly because a trial never occurred.

Even after his public admission to the Morrison Heights congregation, Langworthy cut a guilty plea deal that kept him out of prison. He served five years of probation, could have no contact with the survivors of his abuse, and had to remain registered as a sex offender. The state’s sex offender registry says Langworthy died in 2019.

Graham, the pastor of the Texas megachurch where Langworthy’s abuse accusation was allegedly ignored, refused to speak with investigators who were compiling the report released this week.

Meanwhile, Southern Baptists are reeling as they reckon with the report and its broad negative attention.

Russell Moore, a Mississippi native and prominent Southern Baptist Convention leader who left the denomination in 2021 for, among other reasons, its lax response to the sexual abuse scandal, penned a column for Christianity Today this week about the damning report.

I can’t imagine the rage being experienced right now by those who have survived church sexual abuse. I only know firsthand the rage of one who never expected to say anything but ‘we’ when referring to the Southern Baptist Convention, and can never do so again. I only know firsthand the rage of one who loves the people who first told me about Jesus, but cannot believe that this is what they expected me to do, what they expected me to be. I only know firsthand the rage of one who wonders while reading what happened on the seventh floor of that Southern Baptist building, how many children were raped, how many people were assaulted, how many screams were silenced, while we boasted that no one could reach the world for Jesus like we could.

That’s more than a crisis. It’s even more than just a . It’s blasphemy. And anyone who cares about heaven ought to be mad as hell.

Russell Moore in Christianity Today on May 22, 2022

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Mississippi, Hinds County sees increase in COVID case counts

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rssfeeds.clarionledger.com – Mississippi Clarion Ledger – 2022-05-18 15:36:53

Though COVID-19 has not been top of mind for many Mississippians in recent months, a new surge of cases is being reported with Hinds County seeing a 220% increase in cases over two weeks.

Case counts are up 223% over the past two weeks across the state, according to a New York Times database.

A daily average of 417 cases is being reported as of Tuesday. Hotspots for average daily cases include…

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Men Who Care About Jackson will take place Saturday May 21 in Clinton

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rssfeeds.clarionledger.com – Mississippi Clarion Ledger – 2022-05-17 21:00:43

The leader of a local church is planning a “Men Who Care About Jackson” conference for 8:30 a.m. May 21 at Camp Garaywa in Clinton.

Joseph White pastor of Restoration Community Church in Jackson said his church is sponsoring the event because, “We do care about Jackson.”

Guest speakers are Jackson Police Chief James Davis and Hinds County Sheriff Tyree Jones.

City of Jackson, Miss., Police Chief James Davis, speaks to reporters about the Hinds County Public Safety Initiative, a project they believe will address crime in Hinds County through temporary judges, assistant district attorneys, and public defenders, Wednesday, May 4, 2022, in Jackson, Miss.

“The idea for this event came…

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After appeal denied, Hinds County educator Toby Price to continue fight for job

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rssfeeds.clarionledger.com – Mississippi Clarion Ledger – 2022-05-13 07:41:49

It has been about two months since Toby Price was fired as an assistant principal of a Hinds County school for reading a children’s book titled “I Need a New Butt!” to second graders during a Zoom call for Read Across America Week. 

He had been appealing his termination with the school district through hearings, testimony and, most recently, an April 28 appearance before the Hinds County…

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