As the rain fell in August and water began to seep into homes, phones began to ring for case workers with the Department of Children and Family Services.
"We had multiple workers who were standing in ankle-deep water when they got the call from their supervisors to say, 'Start finding your families.' And they did," said DCFS Secretary Marketa Garner Walters.
It took nearly a week for DCFS to track down every foster family that was forced out by the flood. In all, 213 kids were displaced. As of Thanksgiving, 52 kids and their foster families remain displaced, including seven in the Baton Rouge region. According to Walters, foster families are not given any special treatment when it comes to disaster aid and rebuilding, so displaced families are working through the recovery process like everyone else. That’s one more reason why the state is asking Congress to send more aid.
"We have hopes that if we get some of that money from Congress that we'll be able to use it to stabilize the rest of these families that need their house back," Walters added.
The secretary explained that after Katrina, DCFS eventually received significant funding from Congress and was able to do "extraordinary things" for families. However, she also said it took time for that extra funding to come in. Meanwhile, state officials are doing what they can to support foster families and to keep kids in place.
"What we know to be true with foster kids is that normalcy is critical," said Walters.
Normally, DCFS has several housing requirements for foster homes, including making sure every child has their own bed and requiring certain amount of square footage per child in the house to prevent crowding. However, temporary housing options, like FEMA’s mobile homes, make those requirements nearly impossible.
The state has given displaced foster families a temporary pass on those requirements in favor of keeping kids already exposed to a lot of trauma and change with the families they know. The federal government has also loosened restrictions on what can be purchased for foster kids, allowing families to replace some items lost in the flooding, like computers or bikes.
The secretary also said caseworkers continue to monitor all kids, even as many workers face rebuilding themselves. In all, more than 200 DCFS employees were hit by flooding.
"Staff may be traveling a little out of their normal regional boundaries to get to everybody, to make sure we're seeing every child. We know they're in a safe place. Even if it’s a small cramped trailer, we know their safe," Walters explained.
Walters said no foster family gave up their responsibilities due to the flood. She said every family they spoke with was adamant about doing whatever they needed to keep their foster kids. Walters said that’s a tribute to the foster parents in the area.