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Young Mother Booked for Not Having a Babysitter as Mississippi Diverts Childcare Money

Motherhood in Mississippi carries legal challenges for the impoverished. Photo courtesy of Pexels.

The Pontotoc County Sheriff's Department arrested mother Mariha Dunn, 25, on May 21 and charged her with two counts felony child abuse for reporting to work and leaving her 5-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter alone in the home. A Pontotoc County Sheriffs’ deputy claims Dunn’s 5-year-old son answered the door when he knocked, that the home had no power and felt “like a sauna.”


“The Deputy Sheriff notified CID and CID contacted Child Protective Services (CPS),” Pontotoc County reported. “After an investigation by CID and CPS the children were removed from the home by CPS and placed with a family member.”


Deputies took Dunn to the Pontotoc County Sheriff's Adult Detention Center, and a justice court judge set her bond at $10,000 for the two felony counts. Pontotoc County Sheriff's Department employees confirm Dunn showed up for her arrest while officers were still at her house.


Mariha Dunn’s relative, Casey Dunn, announced on Facebook that Mariha is “doing fine” and nobody was injured. “Her kids are doing fine! Yeah, she made a bad decision, but everything is going to be fine! I appreciate all the messages of encouragement and support!”

Dunn, who’s booking photo suggests she is a fast-food services worker, received an outpouring of support on Facebook.


“I’m literally crying because I can see the hurt in her,” wrote Zenia Ferguson. “She probably felt that’s the only option she had to continue working while trying to get her bills paid! I say let her out & HELP HER get on her feet!”


“At least she wasn’t at a club somewhere partying,” said Alita Jenkins. “She looks so burdened and stressed. As a single mother myself it’s hard, we just try to do the best we can do. Most of these men don’t care if their kids eat or not, let alone have lights. Definitely it’s not easy out here. Keep your head up mamma. We stand with you.”


Dunn is scheduled to appear in Pontotoc Justice Court on October 18, and did not immediately return requests for interviews. However, the absence of affordable childcare in Mississippi may have aggravated conditions that led to her arrest.


A report by Washington DC-based think tank the Bipartisan Policy Center reveals Mississippi reported to have spent only $1.7 million of its total $57.3 million in TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) expenditures—just 3%—on childcare and early learning in 2021.

Of its $57M federal disbursement, the report claims Mississippi leaders transferred 0% to Child Care and Development Block Grants (CCDBG) to expand child care subsidies to low-income families. They also transferred 0% to direct child care spending and only 3% to direct child care spending for state TANF Maintenance of Effort (MOE) programs. Instead, the state dedicated 97% of the budget on “all other TANF expenditures.”


State news sources, including BGX, have revealed many of those “other TANF expenditures” to have little to do with childcare, however.

A lawsuit “is not a TANF program,” and filing a lawsuit is not “necessary” to operate a TANF program.

From gold bar investment scams and volleyball stadiums to ex-wrestler drug rehab and horse ranches, primarily white Mississippi officials appear to spend TANF money on things that have nothing to with temporary assistance for needy families. Lax federal law permits Mississippi to use TANF funds to pay for “accounting” and “litigation,” which allows Mississippi officials to tap the funds to pay gubernatorial campaign donor and New Orleans-based law firm Jones Walker LLP more than $500,000 to investigate how thoroughly Mississippi can blow through TANF money. Reporters noticed the state paid the firm an additional $367,986 by March of this year.

In addition to Jones Walker, officials have paid nearly $1 million in TANF funds for one auditor to recover TANF dollars that Mississippi’s own department heads illegally blew on Republican allies and even more campaign supporters. One attorney defending Jones Walker investigation target Austin Garrett Smith over Smith’s alleged misuse of TANF funds, argues Reeves is wrongly sinking “millions” on civil litigation when it is the state attorney general’s job to pursue TANF related clawbacks.


A lawsuit “is not a TANF program,” Smith insists in his legal filing, and filing a lawsuit is not “necessary” to operate a TANF program.


But department leaders appear happy to stretch the limits of federal requirements and make TANF an ATM for state activities. The Miss. Dept. of Human Services likely even used TANF cash to pay the court costs for a state employee who was successfully sued for racist behavior. When the state settled accusations of racism from a Black plaintiff with a $240,000 pay-off, they likely shifted responsibility of the punitive payments to federal taxpayers by tapping a TANF-sourced fund, according to Department of Human Services spokespeople neither confirmed nor denied the source of the legal payout.


While state officials were using the TANF fund to pay for state business and legal penalties, only 211 adults in the state qualified for TANF benefits in 2023, and only 329 single-parent families. Numbers suggest only about 2,400 Mississippi children received TANF in 2023, despite the state’s nearly 3 million people being some of the most impoverished in the nation.


While burning through federal cash intended for children, research shows investment in food and childcare aid decreases child protective services reports—like Dunn’s. One study from the Casey Family Programs Foundation discovered a marked reduction in neglect and physical abuse and fewer investigated reports as a result of access to more childcare subsidies. Another report discovered states that eliminate barriers to SNAP benefits, including asset tests and impossibly low income caps, saw dramatic reductions in child protection service reports. One report found 8.2 fewer CPS-investigated reports for every 1,000 children per year in states that eliminated the asset test and 5.0 fewer CPS-investigated reports for every 1,000 children per year in states that increased the income limit for mothers like Dunn. States that adopted both policies saw 9.3 fewer CPS-investigated reports for every 1,000 children per year than there would have been if these states had not adopted these policies.


The far-reaching benefits of family assistance is not news to state officials. The Mississippi Economic Council’s yearly state-wide assessment listed childcare as a daunting challenge, with the state’s lack of accessible childcare hurting both employers and employees. The report argued the absence of affordable childcare in the state could be contributing to a less skilled workforce and lowering the employee retention rate. The Children’s Foundation of Mississippi also claims the state’s nagging childcare issues result in an estimated $673 million loss for the state economy.


Dunn, for example, may feel the economic loss of impending unemployment in upcoming weeks as the Pontotoc County DA prosecutes her for what may turn out to be reasons of “being too poor to hire help.”


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