State leaders say that Louisiana's budget crisis could have a startling impact on some of the state's most vulnerable residents, as the state's social services have faced tightening budgets and shrinking staffs in recent years.
The Senate Select Committee on Women and Families on Thursday heard from people who had recently aged out of foster care in Louisiana at 18, who say that more resources are needed to help kids prosper beyond the system.
The Division of Children and Family Services oversees some 8,000 foster children across the state, and the workers who make sure that they are placed in homes where they are thriving are facing increased case loads and fewer options.
When Gov. John Bel Edwards took office in January 2016, a report drafted by one of his transition committees noted that things had gotten so bad that some foster children had to sleep in offices because the state was “churning through new foster homes at a high rate” and couldn't keep enough homes for kids.
From issues with transportation to ending up with nowhere to go when they turn 18 and age out of the system, each described the significant hurdles they have faced to get where they are – all are in college today. National statistics suggest fewer than 10 percent of foster youth obtain college degrees.
Jarvis Spearman, 23, is a senior at Grambling State University majoring in social work.
From the time that Spearman was seven years old until he turned 18, he was in the state's foster care system.
"Some foster homes were good; some were bad," he told the Senate panel's hearing that several House members also attended. "A lot of times, I just felt like I was an outcast."
He told the lawmakers he had several "dark moments" while in foster care.
"I was wanting to commit suicide because I felt worthless," he said.
It was especially true in the "bad homes."
"That's what they told us: we weren't going to be anything," Spearman said. "I started to believe it."
Spearman said that he hopes that the state can help address homelessness for teens who age out of foster care.
"Homelessness is one of the worst things that can happen to youth ageing out," Spearman said, noting the increased likelihood of getting involved in drugs and other crimes.
Taylor Fletcher, 20, was in the foster care system from the time he was 13 until he was 18. The youngest of three boys, Fletcher is now a student at LSU but notes his brothers haven't been so fortunate.
"Out of all three of us, both of them has been shot and both are in jail," Fletcher said.
He said that he would like to see a system that offers more opportunities to children.
"If you take a child out of his home or whatever the case may be, you become that child's parent," Fletcher said. "We need better parents, workers and programs."
"It's so sad that every kid doesn't end up as lucky as me," he added.
Several states in recent years have begun eyeing extending programs until the age of 21 to help address the issues with aging out at 18. Louisiana's Young Adult Program, which was meant to help the transition, hasn't been funded since 2013.
Kayana Bradley, known as “Keedy,” is a 20-year-old UNO student. From age 14 to 18 she was in foster care, after her mother got sick and had to go to a nursing home.
When she turned 18, she had no one to co-sign for her to obtain housing until a volunteer who had worked with her offered to help. Bradley said that she foster children often find themselves with nowhere to go and no resources to navigate the real world on their own: No idea how to budget, no bank account and no one to ask for help.
"It truly takes a village to raise a child," she said.
State lawmakers are still working to hash out a budget for the state fiscal year that begins July 1, but already, DCFS Secretary Marketa Walters has sounded the alarm over the further budget constraints her department may face. The department's budget is about $775 million, of which 68 percent is paid for by the federal government. The state's share is about 23 percent.
The budget proposal approved by the GOP-controlled state House fell about $19.5 million in state funding below what Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, had suggested. Coupled with federal match dollars, the total impact would be about $70 million.
The House budget proposal for DCFS is virtually flat from last year, so it doesn't take into account needs that leaders say are critical to keep services for abused children, foster care and other need programs running as they need.
"We're working internally to maximize every resource that we can," Walters said.
To illustrate just how bad things have gotten, Walters often points to the cars that employees are driving to take kids to medical appointments, check on foster families, save kids from abuse situations.
"This is the most deplorable state of our department," Walters said. "Every single car in my fleet has been in the shop this year."
More than 70 percent of DCFS' vehicles have more than 150,000 miles on them. The average mileage per car is about 163,990.
"We are not taking care of our children when we put them in cars that have 200,000 miles," she said. "We are a hair's breath away from a tragedy that is going to be on the front page of the paper."
"It makes me so angry I could just bite nails," Walters said.