BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - As lawmakers continue to wrestle with the state budget, the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) warns that, without adequate funding, young children could literally be left stranded on the side of the road.
DCFS' fleet of cars is old, and in some cases, falling apart. Nearly a quarter have racked up more than 200,000 miles.
"The status of our fleet is deplorable," said DCFS Secretary Marketa Walters, who is asking for more than $1 million in state funding to upgrade the department's cars.
Each day, DCFS drives hundreds of foster kids across the state to court hearings, doctor's appointments, and more. However, those trips can be a safety hazard for the staff and the children they care for.
In Baton Rouge, department cars broke down 26 times over the past year, according to Walters.
"We've had an axle fall out on a driver in the middle of traffic on College Drive," said Shelia Armstead, an administrative supervisor at the DCFS Baton Rouge office. "Thank God she didn't have a kid with her, but she could have. She had just d ropped the child off before this happened."
DCFS has purchased just one new vehicle statewide over the past eight years.
In Baton Rouge, just five vehicles are currently functioning. Most have 100,000 miles or more. Two vehicles they just retired had more than 200,000 miles.
For the second year in a row, the DCFS secretary is asking lawmakers for money to upgrade the agency's vehicles. However, with the state short on cash, House lawmakers removed needed funding from their budget plan. The House also removed money for an upgrade to the department's computer system that Walters says could streamline paperwork at the department.
It's not just computers and cars, however. Walters says due to ongoing budget restrictions, they only have a limited number of case workers that are currently stretched thin.
Walters says the national standard for case work is ten cases per employee. In Louisiana, the average caseworker manages anywhere from 15 to 20 cases.
"They just get more and more behind because they can't keep up," said the secretary.
Simply put, Walters says DCFS needs more money to function properly – not just now, but into the future.
"We're doing the same or more work with less staff and we cannot keep up and do the quality work that we do with that kind of inverted ratio," said Walters.
The Senate is now working on their own rewrite to the budget. As part of that, they could reinstate the $20 million the department says they need for the computer system, cars, and more. However, that would involve moving money from somewhere else.