Commentary

Dysfunctional DCFS culture demands immediate change

August 31, 2022 5:36 pm

One of the more rewarding aspects of journalism is when our work leads to policy change that improves the lives of Louisiana citizens. In a recent example from our team, Julie O’Donoghue revealed the struggle sexual assault survivors experienced to obtain their medical records from hospitals. Her reporting ledthe Legislature to approve a law this year to ensure survivors could obtain those documents.

Once again, the work of Louisiana journalists is turning a spotlight on the urgent need for change – not just to improve but to save lives. Officials can’t wait a moment longer as children in the state’s foster care system face dire consequences as a result of the lack of resources, proper prioritization and effective leadership from the state Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS).

Recent reporting from The Advocate, WAFB-TV, WBRZ-TV and other sources has detailed the shortcomings, most tragically the overdose death of a 2-year-old that state foster care officials failed to prevent.

DCFS Secretary Marketa Garner Walters said the department has identified where lapses occurred that led to the toddler’s death. A case worker was suspended, and their supervisor resigned before the department could fire her. Cases that were their responsibility have since been reviewed.

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How effective this response will be remains to be seen, but it certainly doesn’t – and could never – offset the loss of a child. The situation calls for more than personnel moves. A policy overhaul is in order, and that could require a chance in leadership.

Lawmakers will likely press for accountability when the Senate Health and Welfare Committee meets Tuesday to specifically discuss DCFS oversight. 

Back in November, the Senate Select Committee on Women and Children sought answers from Walters as to why instances of human trafficking involving youth have gone largely untouched at DCFS. The secretary said a lack of adequate training and widespread turnover within her agency were to blame, and the only trafficking cases they manage are when a foster child’s parents or caregivers are the suspected perpetrators.

“It’s not my job” is hardly a satisfactory response when asking a state agency leader for help. 

To be sure, Louisiana and many other states are ill equipped to adequately tackle ills such as trafficking and child abuse. But it doesn’t give a free pass to leaders who are quick to find excuses rather than solutions.

Indeed, lawmakers with sway over the budget must explain why adequate resources aren’t provided to state social services agencies. But leadership, which includes the governor and cabinet appointees, must be able to manage their way through a crisis knowing that conditions are likely to be less than optimal.

Those in charge of DCFS must act now and decisively – or be replaced with someone who will – to prevent more tragic loss and lifelong trauma. Anything short of that is unacceptable.

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Greg LaRose
Greg LaRose

Greg LaRose has covered news for more than 30 years in Louisiana. Before coming to the Louisiana Illuminator, he was the chief investigative reporter for WDSU-TV in New Orleans. He previously led the government and politics team for The Times-Picayune | NOLA.com, and was editor in chief at New Orleans CityBusiness. Greg's other career stops include Tiger Rag, South Baton Rouge Journal, the Covington News Banner, Louisiana Radio Network and multiple radio stations.

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