In August 2016, a young African-American woman was traveling through Pearl, Mississippi while looking for employment. She was a passenger in a friend’s car, and her baby rode with them in a car seat. When the car was stopped for a minor traffic violation, it was discovered that both adults had outstanding warrants for routine misdemeanor offenses. The women were arrested, the Department of Human Services was called, and despite the baby’s grandmother arriving on scene, classified the baby as “abandoned” and mandated an appearance before Judge Shirley at the Pearl Youth Court. Less than half an hour later, Judge Shirley awarded custody to the baby’s grandmother and prohibited the mother from having any contact with her baby until court fees were paid in full.
After contacting the MacArthur Justice Center, Mississippi Director Cliff Johnson conducted an investigation. We learned that Judge Shirley had imposed countless similar orders, cruelly conditioning custody or visitation rights on monetary payments that parents sometimes were unable to make. On October 26, 2017, the Pearl Board of Alderman accepted MacArthur’s demands that the Pearl Youth Court be permanently closed and that custody of the child restored to its mother.