JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi’s foster care system is on pace for more adoptions during the current budget year than the previous one.

Department of Child Protection Services Commissioner Andrea Sanders told lawmakers Tuesday that judges finalized adoption of 644 foster children during the year that ended June 30, while 600 adoptions have happened since the current year began July 1.

Some children are in foster care for a short time before returning to their original families, while others remain in the state program for years, Sanders said. Several legal hurdles must be cleared before a foster child can be adopted, and that can be a “logistical, legal nightmare,” she said.

“It is pretty amazing that kids get adopted in this state through the foster care system,” said Sanders, who has led the department since November 2020.

Mississippi has 3,647 children in foster care, and the department is providing services for another 3,622 children who are living with their own families, she said.

Sanders — who has been a social worker and earned a law degree — said Child Protection Services employees have been trying to move a backlog of cases to get children into permanent homes. The pandemic slowed some adoptions.

“I’m not interested in pointing fingers about that, but we just started really taking it down as granular as each child and looking at why they’re stuck in the system and starting to move them through,” Sanders told members of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

She said about 25% of the adoptions this budget year have taken place in the past two months. The department has been looking at creating parity between what it pays for foster care and what it pays for adoption subsidies.

Child advocates sued Mississippi in March 2004 over problems in the state’s foster care system, including large caseloads for social workers. In January 2008, the plaintiffs and the state reached a settlement agreement that included limits on caseloads and set standards for staff training. A federal judge appointed monitors to ensure the state met goals required by the settlement.

Sanders said she will be in New York next week to meet with plaintiffs and monitors to discuss the next steps the department must take to meet demands of the lawsuit.

“I believe that I have demonstrated consistently to the plaintiffs’ attorneys that we are headed in the right trajectory,” she said. “But I will tell you like I told them: You do not change a system this size that has this many multiple components overnight.”

The Department of Child Protection Services has worked within its existing budget to increase the beginning salary for caseworkers to about $37,000, Sanders said. She said the job requires a college degree. While the new salary remains below the regional market average, Sanders said she hopes the increase will help the department attract and retain employees.