Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services Secretary Marketa Walters speaks to reporters after a Sept. 6, 2022, Senate Health and Welfare Committee oversight hearing regarding the state’s child welfare system. (Wes Muller/Louisiana Illuminator)
Members of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee made it clear Tuesday that they intend to take a good, long look at deficiencies within the state Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). Their hearing this week comes after the deaths of two toddlers over the summer, one from a fentanyl overdose and the other from apparent abuse and neglect.
It’s encouraging that extensive scrutiny is in store for DCFS, but it doesn’t appear so far there will be accountability from department leadership.
DCFS Secretary Marketa Garner Walters was on the not-so-hot seat Tuesday before lawmakers, who largely pulled punches when it came to blunt criticism of her. Senators made broad calls for reform within the department yet pledged to find more resources for its efforts in next year’s budget.
On the other hand, Rep. Jason Hughes, D-New Orleans, who has openly called for Walters’ dismissal, questions whether more money will remedy the dysfunction at DCFS. He didn’t back down from his calls to replace Walters, even after Gov. John Bel Edwards said Wednesday he supports keeping Walters in place as secretary.
Hundreds of vacant positions currently at @LouisianaDCFS they can’t fill; staff leaving in droves. Why exactly do they need more money? I’d rather pay teachers and get them above the @srebeducation average than give the current @DCFSSecretary more money. #lalege #lagov https://t.co/2ii9tom9ed
— Jason Hughes (@RepJasonHughes) September 7, 2022
Walters said high turnover and heavy caseloads on the remaining staff are at the core of the department’s problems. Her agency hopes to work with state Civil Service officials to improve the pay of incoming caseworkers, she said.
Yet current and former DCFS employees told the committee compensation has not been an issue for the exodus of experienced employees. They pointed to a “toxic” working environment and pressure from regional and local supervisors to maintain the agency’s ineffective status quo.
Walters promised to look into the root cause of the workplace turmoil, but it’s concerning that the secretary was evidently unaware of it until Tuesday’s hearing or – worse yet – has so far failed to act to correct it.
Chairman Fred Mills, R-New Iberia, said the Senate Health and Welfare Committee will continue to meet every six weeks, at least through the end of the year, to pick apart problems at the state agency and hopefully find solutions. An open-ended timeline is wise, but there should at least be a deadline set for appreciable corrective actions at DCFS.
The well-being of children on Louisiana’s fringes can’t wait a second longer.
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