Louisiana legislators seek solutions to overburdened child welfare system

DCFS caseworkers face ‘toxic work environment’

By: - September 6, 2022 7:14 pm

Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services administrators (from left) Terri Ricks, Marketa Walters and Rhenda Hodnett testify at a Senate Health & Welfare Committee oversight hearing on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022. (Photo credit: Wes Muller/Louisiana Illuminator)

Louisiana legislators called for significant reforms to the state’s child welfare system during an oversight hearing Tuesday that follows two recent child deaths from abuse and neglect.

The Senate Health and Welfare Committee met at the Capitol with administrators from the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), the agency responsible for investigating and responding to allegations of child abuse and neglect. The discussion covered problems the agency faces with heavy case loads for workers, staffing shortages and toxic work environments.

“I think that a significant overhaul does need to take place,” Sen. Patrick McMath, R-Covington, said.

In June, 2-year-old Mitchell Robinson III died in Baton Rouge after consuming the opioid fentanyl. Doctors and emergency room staff had revived the toddler from fentanyl overdoses twice previously and alerted state child welfare authorities each time.

Less than a month later, Houma Police recovered the body of 2-year-old Ezekiel Harry stuffed in a trash can after the toddler died from blunt force trauma. A Houma woman and her live-in boyfriend face murder charges in connection with the boy’s death, The Courier reported. The Times-Picayune reported that neighbors alerted DCFS of the dangers in the home prior to the child’s death, though on Tuesday agency leaders said they could not find records of any calls from neighbors regarding Ezekiel Harry.

As for Mitchell Robinson, Hodnett said the agency did send a case worker out following the second report, but the child’s mother was not home.

DCFS Secretary Marketa Garner Walters said the agency typically sees a spike in child welfare cases in the late summer as children return to school.

The number of newborns exposed to narcotic substances “has skyrocketed,” and rising violence in the Baton Rouge region is causing an influx of cases that has overburdened the agency, which has a shortage of more than 400 workers, Walters said.

“There aren’t enough hands on the plow,” Walters said.

One of the most common complaints the agency receives from exit interviews is that child welfare workers suffer from an uneven work-life balance and many feel a burden they cannot let go of when they aren’t at work, she said.

“The number of children we’ve seen killed by playing with a gun is terrifying,” Walters said. “We live in the middle of this trauma.”

Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services Secretary Marketa Walters speaks to reporters after a Senate Health and Welfare Committee oversight hearing of the state’s child welfare system. (Photo credit: Wes Muller/Louisiana Illuminator, Sept. 6, 2022)

The number of drug-affected newborn cases in East Baton Rouge Parish has reached 518 this year, up from 385 in 2021, and field staff turnover rates jumped from 15.4% in 2020 to 23.1% in 2021, according to numbers the agency provided.

Sen. Beth Mizell, R-Franklinton, said she couldn’t understand how a high-priority call from a hospital regarding a child’s overdose goes unanswered.

Hodnett said the initial report from the hospital caused DCFS workers to question the urgency of their response. One factor, she said, was the lack of law enforcement involvement.

The agency has since made a policy change to have a manager conduct a second review of any intake report that is not initially accepted for further investigation.

As for other incidents, the administrators pointed out that courts – not DCFS – have the final say on whether a child should remain in custody or be returned home.

Sen. Mike Fesi, R-Houma, said committee members have heard from current and former DCFS employees about a “toxic work environment” driving the high staff turnover.

Rep. Jason Hughes, D-New Orleans, has called on Walters to resign. In a tweet last month, Hughes said one reason for the high turnover of staff is “because they are not valued or respected by the top brass.”

Stacey McPherson, a former DCFS caseworker for Rapides and Avoyelles parishes, testified that she left in July due to a toxic work environment that her supervisors and regional managers created.

McPherson said managers retaliated against caseworkers who voiced concerns about certain problems or decisions that affected the children and families they serve.

“You don’t go against the system, you don’t state your concerns,” McPherson told senators. “They want you to go with the flow.”

Some employees would hide underneath desks whenever a particular supervisor came around, according to McPherson. “We just hope to make it through that one day because every day is excruciating,” she said.

The senators should make an effort to speak with individual caseworkers to get a true account of what the work environment is like, McPherson said.

DCFS is committed to moving forward with solutions, including investigating workplace complaints, Walters said.

“We will certainly be looking at everything we heard today,” Walters said. “We desperately need to figure out where this toxicity is and root it out.”

Tuesday’s hearing was the first of several the committee plans to hold regarding the child welfare system, its chairman, Sen. Fred Mills, R-New Iberia, said.

In a post-meeting interview, Mizell said she felt McPherson’s testimony “created a new conduit” for other DCFS employees to come forward.

“We’ll be meeting again,” Mizell said.

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Wesley Muller
Wesley Muller

Wes Muller traces his journalism roots back to 1997 when, at age 13, he built and launched a hyper-local news website for his New Orleans neighborhood. In the years since then, he has freelanced for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans and worked on staff at the Sun Herald in Biloxi, WAFB-9News CBS in Baton Rouge, and the Enterprise-Journal in McComb, Mississippi. He also taught English as an adjunct instructor at Baton Rouge Community College. Among his recognitions are McClatchy's National President's Award, the Associated Press Freedom of Information Award, and the Daniel M. Phillips Freedom of Information Award from the Mississippi Press Association. Muller is an alumnus of Jesuit High School and the University of New Orleans and is a veteran U.S. Army paratrooper. He lives in Louisiana with his wife and two sons.

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