State and local officials are sounding the alarm about a disturbing trend in Livingston Parish: The number of children entering foster care here has nearly doubled over the past four years to the highest per capita rate of any parish in the state.
Family court sessions drag late into the evenings. Services for drug addiction, mental health and parenting are falling woefully short. And the same people who were once foster children are cycling back through, now at risk of losing their own kids to the state.
Judges tell stories of a fifth-grader injected with methamphetamine and needles found in a child's playpen.
"It's frightening to think this is going on right here in our neighborhoods, in our subdivisions," said Denham Springs City Court Judge Jerry Denton, who oversees foster care cases.
State officials recently convened a group of state and local officials to discuss the problem and have formed a loose working group to analyze the problem and possible solutions. But answers and concrete solutions remain elusive.
A rising number of children in foster care is at once a problem in itself and a symptom of other things.
Judges agree to put children into foster care, due to problems in the home with addiction, neglect and even physical or sexual abuse. Cases may begin when a worker from the Department of Children and Family Services is alerted to abuse or neglect by law enforcement, or after a report is made at school, where some children show up hungry and unwashed. Recently, many come directly from the hospital if they test positive for drugs.
While judges take kids out of the home for their safety, entering care can amount to a traumatic break. Some placements are with relatives or people they know, but many are with strangers. And in Livingston Parish there is a major shortage of foster families, meaning many kids are sent far from home: Just half of the 378 children who are in care in Livingston Parish stay with families here, according to DCFS.
Michael Forbes, an assistant district attorney who handles these cases in Livingston Parish compared the situation to doctors taking an oath to "First, do no harm."
"Sometimes, it's hard to tell whether you are or aren't. You have to err on the side of caution, but sometimes when you do that, you maybe do more damage to a child than if you left them with a dysfunctional family," Forbes said.
The rising consciousness of the number of children in foster care is pulling back the curtain in Livingston Parish on problems of drug addiction, sex abuse and poverty, often in the rural areas, where residents are skeptical of government intervention and dysfunction can cut across generations.
"It feels like there is this two-sided deal where you have a lot of resources, great schools, pride in their community ... And then you have this very rural, poverty-stricken group, cohort of people that don't seem to be able to break out," said Rhenda Hodnett, assistant secretary of child welfare for the Department of Children and Family Services.
Most of the cases relate back to untreated mental illness and drugs, especially meth and opioids, officials said. A survey of cases from August shows the two most common factors were meth, which was involved in 47 percent of cases, and opioids, which were involved in 17 percent.
Criminal charges for non-marijuana drugs have been on the rise in Livingston Parish at least since 2016, said 21st Judicial District Judge Blair Edwards, who has presided over foster care cases in Livingston, St. Helena and Tangiphoa parishes for a decade. Meth and sex abuse are issues that appear more frequently in Livingston than elsewhere, she said, and they also often affect families through generations.
"At some point, you've got to break the cycle," Edwards said.
One cause for the recent spike in foster care may have been the August 2016 flood. The number of children entering care had already been on the rise — from 167 entering care in 2014 to 197 in 2016. But the real spike has occurred since. Last year, 329 children were taken into foster care under court orders, according to DCFS.
"When you’re barely holding it together and you don't have a lot of means and you get hit by something like that, things tend to fall apart," Forbes said.
With the rising numbers entering foster care, Livingston stands apart from its neighbors and the state. In Tangipahoa Parish, which is in the same DCFS administrative region, shares the same primary juvenile court judge and suffered severe flooding in 2016, just 130 children were taken into care last year, down from 156 in 2015.
Across Louisiana, the number of children entering care has fallen by 16 percent over the past four years, from 4,051 to 3,391, according to DCFS.
Livingston is roughly on par with the rest of the state in terms of the number of neglect and abuse cases deemed valid, according to DCFS. But the percentage of children entering foster care is about double the statewide median.
"That points to the complexity and severity of the cases in Livingston," said Hodnett, who added that the parish has a high number of very young children, who are more vulnerable and likelier to come into care.
Officials and advocates are quick to push back on the idea that children are being taken needlessly from their parents in Livingston Parish or that there is a different standard between this parish and elsewhere.
"Every case we see is a horrific situation," said Stephanie Breeden, the advocate supervisor for Child Advocacy Services in Denham Springs.
CASA volunteers worked with 175 children navigating the foster care system in Livingston Parish last year, she said.
Some officials and advocates suggested that reporters, like teachers and school administrators, may be more vigilant, and judges could be more cautious or thorough than elsewhere.
The working group of local stakeholders convened by DCFS will work on "root cause" analysis of the rising number of foster children in the parish. But one of their other goals will be to develop solutions.
Hodnett, the DCFS assistant secretary, said community leaders are expected to guide the process, and she is hoping for some direction and action within the next few months.
In 2018, U.S. Congress passed the Families First Act, which prioritized funding for supporting families, instead of placing children in foster care. It would be a big shift to roll out statewide, and Hodnett is hoping Livingston Parish will be the first site where the principles of primary prevention through treatment are implemented.
“(We’ll) see if we can actually implement what the vision is from the federal government and one that we share, and see if we can make an impact in preventing abuse and neglect and then, when it is identified, intervening very early with community services and being able to serve children in their homes,” Hodnett said. If kids are taken, it would involve having a continuum of care for kids and their families.
But Hodnett said the community is expected to lead the way.
“We are here strictly to say, we see this increase on our end. We know you care about the children and families in your community, help us understand what’s happening here and how we can be more effective as a government agency,” Hodnett said.
Some people in the community are already pitching in to help with the increased number of kids in care. Last year, Amy LeJeune and Shayna Landry, both foster moms, founded a nonprofit to support other foster families in Livingston Parish and throughout the region.
The organization grew up naturally. Each of them had begun collecting donations and helping families swap items they needed to care for children of different ages. When they were introduced, they founded the Foster Village, a resource for foster parents and children based at the Judson Baptist Church north of Walker.
The group has grown rapidly, providing emergency clothes, uniforms, bedding and formula to new foster parents, as well as a community center for foster parents and children to meet and get to know one another.
Landry and LeJeune said they've been overwhelmed with support from the church, as well as financial and goods donations.
"I think the community is powerful enough to change these kids lives and help them to have a better future," LeJeune said.