Written by Wesley Muller, Louisiana Illuminator
Louisiana’s child welfare agency has made significant gains in hiring new people to restaff its overburdened workforce after a difficult year of tragic missteps, according to its leader.
Secretary Terri Ricks told state lawmakers Wednesday that the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) has hired 326 full-time workers since July, increasing its total staff from 3,263 to 3,589. The agency’s hiring rate has outpaced its turnover by about 72%, she said.
Ricks reported the data during a Senate Health and Welfare oversight hearing, which lawmakers have been holding regularly to keep tabs on DCFS following a string of high-profile child deaths last year.
Among them were at least two children who were known to be in danger before they died. The death of a third child, 20-month-old Jahrei Paul of Baton Rouge, prompted then-DCFS Secretary Marketa Walters to resign from her position.
The agency’s Child Welfare Division, which investigates reports of abuse and neglect, has struggled with large caseloads and high staff turnover exacerbated by the national labor shortage. In October, DCFS officials said they had more than 400 unfilled positions.
Part of the problem was the low starting salaries for new caseworkers. Lawmakers called on the state Civil Service Commission, which sets the salaries for state employees, to increase pay for DCFS frontline workers.
The commission eventually authorized increases in starting pay for new child welfare workers, bringing their salary to roughly $36,000. Existing employees became eligible to make roughly $40,500 if they work a full 2,080 hours in a year – or 40 hours a week. Child welfare workers in Baton Rouge and New Orleans also received a temporary $5 per hour pay bump.
The jobs can also be very stressful. The Louisiana Legislative Auditor surveyed more than 800 child welfare workers and found that nearly 89% are passionate about their work but only 54% are satisfied with their jobs. Many workers attributed their dissatisfaction to a lack of respect from supervisors, low pay and limited resources available for families.
Even with new pay incentives and an aggressive statewide hiring campaign, only about half of the agency’s job offers were accepted. Still, Ricks said she has so far managed to retain about 90% of her new hires.
The agency has 55 vacancies left to fill in its Child Welfare Division, DCFS spokesperson Heidi Kinchen said.