Toddler deaths prompt changes for Louisiana’s child welfare agency

By: - October 21, 2022 9:47 am

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’s child welfare agency has started to make several changes to policy and practice following the deaths of two toddlers this summer, according to its leadership.

The Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) has been under scrutiny since 2-year-olds from Houma and Baton Rouge died in separate incidents. In both cases, the state had been alerted to abuse in the respective homes. 

DCFS Secretary Marketa Walters told the Senate Health and Welfare Committee that her agency is already seeing positive results from the new protocols the agency implemented. Thursday’s meeting of the panel was the latest in a series focused on problems at the agency. 

“We have taken very seriously your admonitions and encouragement to get things straight,” Walters said, adding that she is “exhausted” but proud of what her team has done.

Louisiana legislators seek solutions to overburdened child welfare system

In the Houma case, a 2-year-old was found dead in a trash can in July after allegedly being beaten to death by his mother’s live-in boyfriend. Neighbors had told authorities about suspected abuse in the home, according to news reports. DCFS officials have said they were not contacted about this case.

In Baton Rouge, a 2-year-old died in June from what police said was a third fentanyl overdose despite doctors previously alerting DCFS about the two previous occurrences. 

Complaint review overhauled

Walters said her agency has implemented a new protocol for handling initial complaints or intake reports. Now, any report from a medical provider involving a child 3 or younger is automatically accepted for a follow-up investigation. As a backup measure, reports that are not automatically accepted are routed to the appropriate local field office for a second-level review, she said.

The agency has also hired nurses and police officers to assist caseworkers in investigations. 

DCFS has also cut its hiring period from 100 to 30 days after adopting a new job candidate interview model, according to Walters. It has offered jobs to 32 qualified candidates in the child welfare division after holding two job fairs, she said. More job fairs are planned throughout the state.

Walters said the agency brings its human resources personnel to job fairs and conducts finger-print registrations and interviews on the spot to streamline the hiring process. 

Staffing has been particularly difficult at DCFS as the agency has more than 400 unfilled positions, officials said. 

“We all wanted the results you’re sharing with us right now,” Sen. Beth Mizell, R-Franklinton, said. “Good things are coming from this conversation that I don’t think would’ve happened otherwise.”

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Lawmakers critical of report

Throughout much of the meeting, senators on the committee took issue with a report The Advocate published that morning. It questioned why lawmakers didn’t devote more state dollars to DCFS while doling out an unprecedented budget surplus. The article said the legislature provided about 6% less than what the agency requested while lawmakers went on a $100 million “spending spree” for local projects such as playgrounds, golf courses and sports complexes. 

Sen. Patrick McMath, R-Covington, said the article failed to tell the complete story and called it a “cheap shot at the legislature.”

The report ignored the fact that the $100 million was one-time money meant for non-recurring expenditures, McMath said, adding that it would have been “woefully irresponsible” to use the money to fund recurring DCFS expenses. 

McMath quoted Walters from a Senate Finance Committee meeting on March 17 during which she said, “Our budget is really very adequately funded. We are stabilized. We are making market rate adjustments on salaries. Where we hurt is human beings to do the work.”

Sen. J. Rogers Pope, R-Denham Springs, said the problems at DCFS have to do with staffing — not money.

“If money is going to solve this problem, I think that we can find the money,” Pope said. “But money’s not going to solve that problem… We could give you all the money that you wanted, you still couldn’t fill those spots.”

DCFS worker salaries

Walters said she doesn’t have the authority to unilaterally hand out raises because those decisions must go through the state Civil Service Commission. Increases in starting pay for child welfare workers recently brought their salary to roughly $36,500 and an additional $5 per hour temporary pay bump for workers in Baton Rouge and New Orleans, but the temporary pay hike expires in February unless the Civil Service Commission grants an extension.  

Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, said it would be “catastrophic” if child welfare workers lost their pay bump.

Civil Service Commission spokesperson Lindsay Ruiz de Chavez said child welfare job salaries are established by looking at current market conditions and reviewing salaries offered by competitors. 

Jan Moller, director of the nonprofit Louisiana Budget Project, was also quoted in The Advocate report. In an interview Thursday, he told the Illuminator money and staffing are still closely connected. 

“Nobody is saying that money is the only issue,” Moller said. “It’s indisputable that money matters and salary matters in your ability to staff the agency.”

Moller said he thinks further pay raises would help DCFS fill its open positions. 

“There’s definitely a salary level at which they would have no problem attracting adequate staff,” Moller said.

Correction: A previous version of this article contained incorrect salary information for DCFS child welfare workers. Incumbent employees are eligible to make roughly $40,500 if they work a full 2080 hours in a year. An additional premium of up to $5 per hour for workers in Baton Rouge and New Orleans is set to expire in February. 

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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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