The state agency that oversees foster care, food stamps, child abuse claims and other social services programs is bracing for furloughs and possibly layoffs because of the state budget crisis.
Department of Children and Family Services Secretary Marketa Garner Walters said her agency won’t be able to avoid the drastic staffing measures if the Legislature doesn’t find $15 million to make its budget whole for the fiscal year that ends June 30.
“You cannot shut down an entire program,” Walters told the House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday. “You can’t just not investigate child abuse.”
But under a drastic scenario outlined for the House budget panel, perhaps only the most severe cases of child abuse would get investigated and calls to report child abuse could go unanswered because there are too few employees to work the phones.
“This is not scare tactics. This is real,” Walters said. “This is where we are at.”
The department’s budget for the current year relied on more than $10.9 million in federal funding that has become tangled in the process.
“There’s no hope of that money coming this year,” Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne said. “It’s going to be a real reduction, and there’s no money to offset that.”
Gov. John Bel Edwards slashed another $4.1 million from the department’s budget earlier this week as part of his effort to shore up the state budget.
“If we don’t get something to fill that, people will lose their jobs,” Walters said.
The state Legislature is in a special session to address the $900 million shortfall in the budget that ends June 30 and a separate $2 billion shortfall next year. The special session ends March 9, and then lawmakers return for a regular session that kicks off March 14.
As lawmakers look for areas of the budget to trim over the next three weeks, it appears unlikely that the family services division can count on getting all of that money back.
“We’re at the bottom of the barrel here. There is no fluff in this agency,” Walters said. “We simply cannot sustain more cuts and serve the families that we are obligated to serve.”
Walters, who took over the agency when Edwards was sworn in Jan. 11, told the legislative panel about the needs that her department attempts to meet — from placing children in foster care to attempting to recoup owed child support payments to determining whether families are eligible for benefits from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly referred to as food stamps. She said about 40 percent of the state’s residents live under or near the official poverty line.
Any layoffs in the department, Walters said, would start with the food stamp enrollment offices, but furloughs would touch every function of the agency.
Louisiana has 4,400 children in foster care on any given day.
“That number is trending up,” Walters said.
There are so many children in foster care and so few steady foster homes that one of Edwards’ transition teams found instances of children having to sleep in local offices because of a lack of placement resources.
About 375,000 households receive benefits through the federal food stamps program. Walters said more than half of the people served by food stamps in Louisiana are children, while 15 percent is made up of the elderly or disabled.
There were 26,000 child abuse cases reported in Louisiana last year, and 6,500 of those cases required immediate response because the child was believed to be in imminent danger.
“We have a very high rate of children in this state who are born drug addicts,” Walters said.
Last year, 1,330 babies were born in Louisiana with drug dependency due to their mothers’ drug abuse while pregnant, she said. That’s up from 684 cases in 2008.
“This number does not seem to stop climbing,” Walters said.
The department also oversees child support enforcement cases. About $1.6 billion in child support is owed in Louisiana — some of those cases date back 30 years, said Lisa Andry, the department’s child support enforcement director.
Any hit to the agency’s state budget likely would lead to a loss of federal support, Walters said.
During Bobby Jindal’s eight-year administration, state funding for the department was cut from $1.2 billion to $681 million. The agency’s staff dropped from more than 5,200 people to about 3,400.
“This agency is not ‘big government’ that has been beefed up,” Walters said.
Editor's note: This story was changed on Feb. 18, 2016, to correct the amount of the state budget shortfall and the number of babies born in Louisiana with drug dependency due to their mothers’ drug abuse.