Louisiana officials launched a new website Friday that allows the public to file complaints related to the state’s child welfare system or any other agency that provides services to children.
The website, www.Kids4.La, is for the state’s child ombudsman, recently organized under the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office. The position serves as an independent monitor who can review complaints against any public or private agency involved in child protection or the delivery of services to children. The ombudsman can also serve as a liaison for a child or family to advocate for the child’s best interests and recommend specific procedural changes or larger systemic reforms.
State Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, authored the bill to create the ombudsman position following a string of high-profile deaths of children, some of whom were known to the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) through prior reports of abuse and neglect.
The first person to hold the new position is retired East Baton Rouge Juvenile Court Judge Kathleen Richey, whom Legislative Auditor Mike Waguespack appointed to the job in September.
“The whole point is to have an independent review of issues that citizens have with their state government,” Richey said in a phone interview.
Richey began her new role Oct. 2 and is already investigating 14 complaints as of Thursday, a day before the website launched.
The work is overwhelming but rewarding, she said.
“What really interested me in this was the potential to have a public driven system of reform,” Richey said. “Often it’s the people engaged in the process who recommend changes…It has the potential to make a real difference for the children of the state.”
The legislative auditor’s office, which has a steady track record of calling out internal failures and mismanagement within public agencies, opened a new section of its website for the ombudsman. Its pages include one that opens a complaint form people can fill out and send directly to Richey.
Most complaints about DCFS, Richey said, accuse the agency of either seizing children too quickly or not acting quickly enough, a situation not unique to Louisiana. Both extremes can have devastating and sometimes deadly effects.
A 2021 federal report showed Louisiana’s child welfare agency struggling in several areas. Louisiana had a slower response time to complaints of child maltreatment than most other states. Louisiana’s average response time is 119 hours, or five days, while the national average is three and a half days and the national median is less than two, according to the report.
Louisiana also had fewer than half the number of child welfare workers than similar size states, such as Kentucky and Oregon. Louisiana had just 221 intake, screening, investigation and alternative response workers compared with 922 for Kentucky and 522 in Oregon. Even Mississippi, with two-thirds the population of Louisiana, had double the number of child welfare workers of Louisiana that year.
Since then, DCFS has been on a hiring push. The agency has recruited more than 200 new employees since 2022.
Richey said the goal is always to keep children in their homes with their parents whenever it’s possible and safe to do so.
The agency doesn’t typically make headlines when it does its job well, and that often involves providing welfare services rather than enforcement. The vast majority of children in state custody are there because of allegations of neglect. Richey found this true during her years on the bench, and federal data shows the same across all states.
“A lot of neglect cases are mental health or substance abuse but they’re driven by poverty,” Richey said.
Providing services for poverty and mental health can be an effective way to stop child neglect and save the state a lot of money because, she said, it’s much cheaper than taking kids into foster care.