Louisiana’s child protection system understaffed, overburdened after years of cuts, child advocates say _lowres

 

If Louisiana is not alone, it is still far from a great distinction to have children spending nights at a social worker’s office, because there is no place for a child in state supervision to go.

States across the nation have reported similar problems, as child welfare agencies have more children to help and fewer places to put them.

Citing reporting by The Advocate, a national survey by Governing magazine said there have been similar cases in Arizona, Kansas, Texas and Washington, D.C.

While such incidents reflect only a few instances, compared to the number of children served, it is a vivid example of the shortcomings of child welfare across the nation.

For Louisiana’s top official in child welfare, Marketa Garner Walters, those incidents are part of a larger picture of social workers with too many children to supervise and too few options for them.

Walters, secretary of the state Department of Children and Family Services, outlined the math to the Press Club of Baton Rouge recently.

Between 2008 and 2016, DCFS's workforce was cut by more than 600 positions — from about 1,800 to about 1,200. "Our caseloads have not gone down," Walters emphasized. "Let me be abundantly clear: they have gone up."

The Louisiana Legislative Auditor earlier this year found the department struggles with its high caseloads, staff turnover and outdated technology affected its ability to perform some basic reviews meant to ensure foster kids' safety.

The audit focused on performance during former Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration and was requested by the Edwards administration, but new management is not the only remedy needed; money is hard to come by, although legislators at least recently provided money to replace old vehicles and some equipment.

Inevitably, though, morale at the agency suffered during years of cutbacks. There are few functions of government more labor-intensive than supervision of a family where a child is feared to be abused or neglected; caseworkers have to be able to work with the family, to eliminate the causes of problems and with luck keep the child safely in the home. Other cases require more intensive intervention, and that involves more time, including working with the court system and waiting in courtrooms.

Again, we’re not alone. Walters said, as national studies have found few states serving children well in such difficult circumstances. “We know that we are not meeting our own internal standards,” she said bluntly of DCFS.

If this is “a struggle across the country,” why is there not more active intervention by the Legislature to fund the improvements that will make a difference in the lives of children? Those are our future assets, or liabilities if the job is not done right.