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Louisiana's child welfare agency struggles under 'crippling' caseloads, turnovers: 'We're drowning'

Department of Children and Family Services Secretary Marketa Walters. Photo by Hilary Scheinuk

When an 11-year-old child was found sleeping outside a New Orleans playground last year, law enforcement officials contacted Louisiana’s child welfare agency to take over.

However, the Department of Children and Family Services was slow to respond.

“Because of staffing shortages, this kid languished in this bureaucratic loop and did not get the support they needed,” state Rep. Jason Hughes, a New Orleans Democrat, said at a state budget hearing Wednesday.

Faced with skyrocketing caseloads and meager salaries, almost half of the frontline, entry-level social service workers at DCFS quit last year, hampering Louisiana’s ability to care for its most vulnerable residents at a time of unprecedented need.

“We’re drowning,” DCFS Secretary Marketa Garner Walters told lawmakers Thursday. “It’s salary. It’s workload. It’s COVID. It’s the ‘Great Resignation.’ It’s the work itself.”

Around 400 positions at DCFS are unfilled, accounting for about 10% of its workforce. That’s more than double the vacancy rate the agency typically runs, Walters said.

In New Orleans, the staffing shortage is particularly dire. DCFS is about 35 caseworkers short of what’s necessary to meet the Crescent City’s demand for child welfare services, according to Rhenda Hodnett, an assistant secretary at the department.

DCFS caseworkers are on-call 24/7. When they don't immediately respond, law enforcement is the fallback.

“Talking with our judges, we have youngsters that are sitting in detention centers that technically don’t need to be in the center,” said state Sen. Jimmy Harris, a New Orleans Democrat. “What the judges are being told and what the city is being told is that due to lack of staffing, they can’t get to those children in a timely manner.”

Part of the problem is low wages. Entry-level social workers at DCFS are required to have a four-year college degree. But their salaries start at just under $30,000.

And as the “boots on the ground” for DCFS, working directly with SNAP recipients and investigating allegations of child abuse, their work is often the most grueling.

Walters pointed to a caseworker in New Orleans who worked 20 hours straight and didn’t get off until 4 a.m. on Mardi Gras after requiring the assistance of SWAT team to rescue a child from a dangerous situation.

“That’s what this work is,” Walters said. “You never know when you come in at 8 o’clock what you’re going to be doing.”

During Bobby Jindal’s administration, the department’s child welfare workforce was slashed by 500 positions, Walters said. But the work has only gotten more complicated.

The coronavirus pandemic and a string of catastrophic hurricanes has intensified that workload even further. Isolation caused cases of domestic abuse and family violence to spike. And the agency has had to respond to historic levels of hunger, issuing $1.2 billion more in food assistance last year than it did in 2020.

The caseloads are “crippling,” Walters said. And when an employee quits – as did 43% of the agency’s entry-level caseworkers in 2021 – their cases get stacked onto another employee’s plate.

DCFS is working with State Civil Service to study whether the salaries offered match up with the experienced required to do the work. An applicant with a master’s degree in social work, for example, can make $10,000 to $15,000 more working for a school system than DCFS.

But Hughes, whose mother works at DCFS, said low morale is also playing a role in turnover.

“This is truly tough for them. They’re on the frontlines, with a lot of stress, making very little, often feeling very unappreciated,” Hughes said. “They can deal with the stress of the work. But the stress of the job, and the internal politics, is frankly sickening.”

Walters agreed that morale has been an issue. When she took over at DCFS in 2016, following Gov. John Bel Edwards’ election, she said “morale was at the lowest it had ever been.”

“People were terrified to speak to us,” Walters said. “I would walk down the halls and speak to people, and they would literally back away because they didn’t know what to expect.”

DCFS recently launched a human resources initiative focused on diversity, equity and inclusion, Walters said. Part of that is making sure the workforce feels appreciated.

“I believe that every single person that works in this agency is hyper committed to do this work,” Walters said. “Because it is so damn hard, that it would be much easier to go work for Costco and make a lot more money.”

Originally posted by The Advocate writer, Blake Patterson.


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