Spurred by news of a malnourished child discovered in Baton Rouge last week, a Louisiana lawmaker on Tuesday said 15 people have approached him with stories of the state’s failure to properly investigate cases of neglected and abused children and has called on Gov. Bobby Jindal to appoint an independent group to look into the Department of Children and Family Services.
State Rep. Alfred Williams, D-Baton Rouge, has called for DCFS to examine its handling of a case involving a 15-year-old boy who police found weighing 47 pounds and covered with roaches in a Baton Rouge “rent house” where he lived with his mother. Family members said they alerted the state to the condition of the boy, described as nonverbal, but the agency never intervened.
DCFS Secretary Suzy Sonnier announced they would both investigate the case and immediately change policies for the handling of cases involving nonverbal children with special needs. A report on that inquiry will be publicly issued Wednesday, Sonnier said.
Since last week, Williams said, a number of people — including three who work at the agency — have complained to him about the agency’s response to various cases, sometimes supplying pictures or audio recordings .
“Each of these individuals stated that the department expressed a lack of concern or follow up,” he said, adding that the employees said they were routinely pressured to open and close cases too quickly.
“These individuals all feel that if they come forward they will be demoted or treated with little respect until they are forced to leave or ultimately fired,” he said.
Sonnier, in a news conference Tuesday, said she doesn’t know who Williams’ informants are but urges them to contact her so the agency can investigate cases of possible child abuse, and promises no retaliation for doing so. “It concerns me that they’ve indicated that they were afraid to speak up,” she said.
Sonnier said agents strive to take on no more than 10 new cases per month. Workers determine the priority of each case and respond immediately or within 24 or 48 hours to each case depending on its circumstances. The validity of each case must be determined within 30 days of its opening, she said, and in accordance with national guidelines, workers have 60 days to close a case.
“You are never to close a case if there is information that’s outstanding,” she said, such as waiting on a law enforcement report. “Quite frankly, I think (60 days) is a very long time. If a child is unsafe, we need to respond immediately.”
Williams is also calling on Louisiana Senate President John Alario and House Speaker Charles “Chuck” Kleckley to appoint a legislative ad hoc committee to review DCFS’ performance and budget.
Jindal’s office on Tuesday announced they will assemble a team of national experts to review DCFS policies and procedures. “We were saddened to hear of this child’s case and the horrific conditions he was subjected to,” the statement says. “DCFS immediately launched an investigation into the circumstances of this case and have already begun implementing policy changes … . We will review the information to ensure that the proper protocols are in place and are being followed.
“DCFS has continual external review of its policies and practices for child welfare from both the federal government and the Council on Accreditation, responsible for accrediting child welfare organizations nationally and internationally.”
Williams also accused the agency of hiding behind confidentiality laws.
Sonnier said it’s sometimes frustrating to have to abide by the confidentiality laws, which are designed to protect children.
“Unfortunately,” she said, “I can’t even respond in most cases to what’s put out there, and very often, many of the conversations about what people think that they know about the cases are not what we know about our investigation. And yet, I can’t even tell our story.”