Review questions how Family Services handled case of malnourished child found in filth, covered in cockroaches _lowres

DCFS Secretary Suzy Sonnier on Wednesday, July 15, 2015.

The corporate incentives and tax breaks at the State Capitol during former Gov. Bobby Jindal's tenure had a real cost, in putting at risk the lives of Louisiana's most vulnerable children.

As budgets elsewhere shrunk to fuel the Jindal priority of "smaller government," even smaller children removed from abusive or neglectful homes were not properly supervised, according to a new audit of the performance of the state's Department of Children and Family Services.

Understaffed, the social services agency skipped some background checks on foster parents and even placed some children with people accused of abuse, according to the audit.

Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera's office identified the problems: high caseloads, hefty employee turnover and ineffective computer systems damaged the agency's oversight of children placed in its care.

"These challenges may impact (the agency's) ability to ensure the safety and well-being of children in foster care in Louisiana," the report says.

Not just "may," but did.

Last year, The Advocate interviewed a Family Court judge in Baton Rouge. As Judge Adam Haney pointed out, the chances that a child is getting a decent chance in life goes down if the cases are being shuffled around in the system, such as it is. A child who has a different caseworker every time before a judge is not getting the personal attention that the situation requires.

The audit is a really damaging indictment of the budget policies of the Jindal administration and the basic facts are not disputed by the new management of DCFS by appointees of Gov. John Bel Edwards.

DCFS oversees child welfare, food stamps, the welfare program and child support enforcement. The first charge is of necessity a labor-intensive process. When Jindal took office, the program had a $1.2 billion budget with 5,200 staff. By the end of his tenure, spending was down to nearly half, and the department had fewer than 3,500 employees.

In a particularly egregious bit of bureaucratic spin, at the end of Jindal's term, outgoing Secretary Suzy Sonnier was described in a DCFS news release as empowered to make changes by the budget situation.

Today, Secretary Marketa Walters said DCFS is implementing a four-part improvement plan for the foster care program, which includes workforce stabilization, upgrading parent resources, caring for youths who age out of the program and a technology upgrade meant to streamline efforts. "We have worked very diligently within the constraints that we have," she said.

Not all was grim in the Jindal years, as DCFS had a good record for timely adoptions, a drive that has continued in the new administration. And we cannot know exactly how many kids' lives were made better by giving foster parents and hard work by DCFS staff.

Nor can it be calculated by an audit how many children of these broken families turned out badly in school, or lived on the streets, or commit crimes today. We know how state spending was squeezed by Jindal's budget policies, and we know the dollar value of the costs of the tax breaks funded.

What we cannot know, but common sense suggests, is that those policies have come with a high cost on the streets of Louisiana for vulnerable children, and for our state's commitment to a more productive society in the long term.