(BATON ROUGE, LA) Child welfare officials removed more than 50 endangered children in Baton Rouge and New Orleans from their homes last month, they said Wednesday, even as they struggled to stabilize a state agency that has been rocked by chronic understaffing.
Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services Secretary Terri Ricks told the state’s Senate Health and Welfare Committee Wednesday that most reports of child neglect or abuse received last month were of urgent enough concern that they demanded responses within 24 or 48 hours.
She said the agency has made progress hiring caseworkers, including extending 183 job offers at recent hiring fairs, but that DCFS likely remains “probably quite short” of full staffing levels. The agency still has hundreds of vacancies.
“Our societal problems are bubbling up through our caseload, which means the children are not OK,” Ricks said.
Ricks and Amanda Brunson, DCFS’ new assistant secretary of child welfare, said they are worried that even more children might need help.
A quarter of Louisianans have received DCFS services since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, and the federal government increased funding for those who needed help buying food in 2020. But those food assistance allotments will return to their regular amounts next month, meaning some families will receive hundreds of dollars less each month.
A lack of economic stability is one of many factors that increase the risk of abuse and neglect within families, officials said. Ricks said DCFS is also trying to work with the Louisiana Department of Health to create educational campaigns about the dangers of recreational drugs, which are a factor in most of the agency’s serious cases.
Mitchell Robinson, 2, and Jahrei Paul, 1, died last year in Baton Rouge after overdosing on fentanyl, according to the parish coroner. In each case, DCFS had received warnings about their families but failed to assess the children before they died.
“We have children that are living miserable lives,” said State Sen. Pro Tempore Beth Mizell, R-Franklinton.
Legislators questioned whether DCFS has enough money to continue to hire new staff and implement stopgap measures in hopes of stabilizing the agency. Undersecretary Eric Horent said DCFS has spent an extra $3.5 million so far on new projects and improvements, but has been able to use money from job vacancies to cover them so far.
As DCFS continues to hire more workers and enter more contracts, though, the picture may change. Ricks said she received word during the meeting that a contract with a staffing company had been approved so that workers in Baton Rouge can clock out without worrying about cases that come in overnight. The staffing company will handle those cases overnight, then hand them back off to DCFS workers when they return in the morning.
Ricks said DCFS will want to work with the legislature to ensure there’s funding to continue using those services in the future. Gov. John Bel Edwards is likely to unveil his proposed budget within the next month.
Kristy Carter, a foster parent from north Louisiana, told committee members that she and her husband have become recertified as foster parents as after a yearslong break “because we want to be part of the change.”
She said they’ve fostered more than 30 children and often questioned decisions from DCFS and some judges to return children back to biological parents who then continued to abuse and neglect them, including one child who did not survive.
“Too many times we send them home only to continue the vicious cycle," she said.
She suggested that DCFS hire more clerical staff to help workers struggling to meet the job's demands, and said she supports a push by some advocates to create a children’s ombudsman who could independently investigate complaints against the agency.