Jim Beam column: Focus on children, families

Published 6:37 am Thursday, August 11, 2022

The fentanyl overdose death of a 2-year-old and reports of a Zachary man being accused of abusing three of his foster children have focused attention on the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS).

The agency, unfortunately, took some serious budget cuts during the Gov. Bobby Jindal administration and its recovery has been slow. The agency’s annual budget was $1.2 billion in 2008 and that was down to $681 million in 2015.

A staff of 5,000 was down to 3,300, a 33 percent reduction. In the latest state budget, the department received $861 million and it lists 3,634 employees.

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Marketa Walters, who heads the department, was asked this week what she would ask for if she had all of the money available to her to improve her agency. The Advocate said Walters told the Senate Select Committee on Women and Children she would immediately add 250 more front-line staff caseworkers, plus add staff attorneys for juvenile court and human resource managers.

DCFS officials have spent years warning legislators the agency doesn’t have enough staff and that pay is too low to attract and retain employees for grueling work. Raises implemented at the beginning of the year increased entry-level pay for front-line caseworkers from $29,000 to $36,000 annually.

While that might sound like a major solution, consider what these caseworkers have to do. Their job duties include knocking on doors amid family disputes, violence, and drug usage; removing children from their homes in the middle of the night; and transporting children to and from family visits, doctor appointments and more.

The 2-year-old who died was hospitalized at least twice in the months leading up to his death. Though medical staff reported those hospitalizations each time to DCFS, the child stayed in the care of his mother. She was arrested last week on a count of negligent homicide.

“I am heartbroken over this child’s death,” Walters said. “I am heartbroken over the loss of any child, especially one that has had some contact with our agency because it means the safety net we are supposed to have as a society is not strong enough.”

Walters announced a new policy Monday that her department’s caseworkers will immediately visit young children who are hospitalized under suspicion of abuse or neglect. It would apply to children ages 3 and under.

Legislators on the committee said despite staffing shortages and heavy caseloads, the child’s death was unacceptable. They also questioned how a toddler being hospitalized with illegal drugs in his system didn’t demand an immediate response from the department.

State Sen. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe, said, “It’s horrific that we would miss it once. It’s inexcusable that we missed it again. It’s almost criminal that they missed it a third time.”

Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, said the oversight was worthy of prosecution. The department announced an investigation would be done by the state inspector general into why warnings apparently went unheeded in the death of the 2-year-old.

East Baton Rouge Parish sheriff’s deputies started investigating the Zachary man accused of abusing children after a DCFS caseworker reached out to law enforcement, saying a victim had spoken up about sexual abuse in the foster parent’s household. The department had removed all three children from the man’s care by the time of his arrest.

Walters said she couldn’t talk about specific cases, adding, “But it is important for the public to know that allegations like this involving foster parents are extremely rare and are not indicative of our foster parents, most of whom open their homes and dedicate their lives to helping kids.”

This situation, along with the death of the 2-year-old, can be blamed on the fact DCFS has had surging caseloads and major staff losses, problems that have worsened over the years, and has had to deal with a pandemic. Half of its front-line, entry-level social service workers quit in 2021.

“It’s salary. It’s workload. It’s COVID. It’s the ‘Great Resignation,’” Walters told legislators in March. “It’s the work itself.” She said the agency was “drowning.”

Louisiana legislators need to take a serious look at the DCFS budget that was $1.2 billion in 2008. In today’s dollars, that would amount to $1.65 billion, nearly twice the $861 million budget the department received this year.

Families and children deserve better. Next to law enforcement officers, the professionals in DCFS have some of the toughest and most unpleasant responsibilities of any state employees.