The victims of state budget cuts over the past decade are the children for whom society has great hopes.
During former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration, the state’s child welfare agency — like other agencies — was hit by significant budget cuts and saw its number of caseworkers reduced by 16 percent, beginning after a 2010 reorganization.
The child welfare division saw its budget shrink from $297 million in the 2007-2008 fiscal year to $240 million in the fiscal year that ended last year. The entire agency, the Department of Children and Family Services, or DCFS, will see a 3 percent increase, a dramatic change, in state funds in the fiscal year that began July 1, according to the Public Affairs Research Council.
But the prospect of spending a great deal more money on endangered children is bleak. The lack of resources affect families and children, as the agency's name says, but they are typically the most poverty-stricken and endangered.
The department's new management under Gov. John Bel Edwards and other child-welfare advocates say cuts have significantly damaged the agency and sapped staff morale, leaving a dwindling number of caseworkers and far less support from supervisors, even as the number of abuse investigations and children in foster care rose.
Child welfare workers typically specialize in different kinds of cases, checking on children in foster care; those living with their families but with open cases; and new cases of children reported as possibly having been abused or neglected. In each category, department data obtained by The Advocate show that a large portion of cases are assigned to workers with caseloads higher than recommended levels.
For example, about 82 percent of new child protection cases in 2015 were handled by workers with caseloads that top the recommended cap of 10 new cases per month. The average caseload for those workers was about 15 new cases.
“The child welfare system is in terrible shape, and we’re failing kids,” said Baton Rouge Juvenile Court Judge Adam Haney, a Republican former prosecutor, pointing to years of cuts under Jindal. “The state as a whole has neglected child welfare for several years — you just need to look at our budget priorities to see how this state feels about child welfare.”
Hainey sees the results in his courtroom, as the caseworkers who by law must attempt to deal with children's problems are overburdened and don't have the time to devote to each case.
“As a judge, it makes it difficult for me,” said Haney, who also is a foster parent. Caseworkers in court are “just reading the file. They weren’t involved in what’s happened, so they can’t tell me what’s really going on with these kids. Once you have a lot of turnover, nothing in the system works. It all relies on trust.”
High turnover is common among child welfare agencies across the U.S., but the steady climb of percentages over the past five years in Louisiana — a quarter of all caseworkers left in 2015 — has raised alarms. In some Louisiana offices, the problem is even worse: In 2013, 44 percent of the 70 child welfare field workers in the Baton Rouge region left the department, a rate that has come down since but is still well above the state average. Rates in New Orleans also are higher: That same year, 38 percent of the 113 frontline workers there left.
“We’ve lost a lot of really, really good people,” said department Secretary Marketa Garner Walters, who was appointed by Edwards to run the agency earlier this year.
People, though, cost money. The state struggles with budget deficits, but both budget shortfalls and other priorities get in the way of more funding.
We believe, as many economists have argued, that investing more in good teachers and strong support for poor children is a successful long-term investment.
Louisiana isn't quite there yet.