Jim Beam column:State agencies under fire

Published 6:26 am Thursday, August 25, 2022

Two state agencies dealing with children, juveniles and families are in desperate need of having outside experts evaluate their operations. Over a dozen stories have been published this month about problems at the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) and the Office of Juvenile Justice (OJJ).

Lawsuits against both agencies have either been filed or threatened. Attorneys representing the family of a 2-year-old boy who died say his death should be a wake-up call for the DCFS. Another 2-year-old boy’s death also involves the DCFS.

In the juvenile justice area, civil rights attorneys are asking a federal judge to block state officials from moving a group of teens from a youth jail to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. That is necessary because of what The Advocate called “chaotic conditions” at the Bridge City Center for Youth in Jefferson Parish operated by OJJ.

Email newsletter signup

As is usually the case, inadequate funding of both agencies is the major reason conditions have deteriorated. So it’s the responsibility of the administration of Gov. John Bel Edwards and the Louisiana Legislature to fix that problem.

The DCFS budget when former Gov. Bobby Jindal took office in 2008 was $1.2 billion. When he left office in 2016 its budget was $681million. A staff of 5,000 was down to 3,300, a 33 percent reduction. The agency received $861 million this year, about half of what it needs to be effective.

Marketa Garner Walters, secretary of DCFS, explained why that is a problem. She said one of the 2-year-old’s case workers was diverted to another urgent case that forced her to remove several children from another home.

“If the worker hadn’t been overloaded, hadn’t had an incredibly high caseload, hadn’t had the removal of seven kids, hadn’t had to work 30 hours of overtime, hadn’t been running around overburdened, she could have paid closer attention,” Walters said. “And so if the burden hadn’t been so great, would she have been able to get back out quicker? Yes. That’s my belief.”

Most child welfare workers in Louisiana are quitting within 18 months. Those who stay carry caseloads up to three times what they should be. One worker who resigned said, “It’s the blatant ignoring of the cries of front-line workers that is making all of us leave.”

Jindal has been out of office for seven years, The Advocate said. And it added that since his departure, the Edwards administration and the Legislature haven’t fortified the emaciated department.

An attorney for one of the 2-year-olds who died and a longtime advocate for juvenile justice reform in Louisiana said, “I don’t know what it is about this state that continually fails to protect kids. This is a cycle. When you don’t take care of 2-year-olds, you’re going to see them in the juvenile justice system. Or you’re going to see them in the criminal justice system. It’s just tragic and outrageous and really, really frustrating.”

A supervisor at DCFS resigned after overseeing the case of one 2-year-old’s death. The case worker who was assigned the case has been suspended while the investigation takes place. There is an internal and an inspector general investigation under way.

A New Orleans legislator was quick to call for the firing of the head of DCFS, and that is a knee-jerk reaction. Walters has done an outstanding job and can’t be blamed for failures in a system that is drastically under-funded and overworked.

The same situation is true of Bill Sommers, deputy secretary of OJJ who heads the agency. Like Walters, he has an outstanding record. Sommers was director for the last six years of his 33 years with the Calcasieu Parish Office of Juvenile Justice Services that is recognized as one of the leading juvenile justice systems in the country.

State Sen. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe, said the problems at OJJ began long before Sommers arrived. Sen. Bret Allain, R-Franklin, said building juvenile justice facilities that the state should have known weren’t going to work shouldn’t have been done in the first place.

Some of the larger parishes like Calcasieu have good juvenile facilities, but rural parishes don’t have the financial resources to build them. That is why legislators should consider helping fund regional juvenile facilities in  those areas.

Inadequate funding at DCFS and OJJ is already obvious, and the Edwards administration and the Legislature can take care of that problem. Outside experts can help determine what else is needed to address the issues that have dragged on much too long.