I-TEAM: DCFS officials address latest failure in child’s overdose death

The head of Louisiana’s Department of Children and Family Services (2022) calls 2022 one of the deadliest years she’s seen for children across the state.
Published: Nov. 7, 2022 at 10:11 AM CST|Updated: Nov. 7, 2022 at 7:58 PM CST
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BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - The head of Louisiana’s Department of Children and Family Services (2022) calls 2022 one of the deadliest years she’s seen for children across the state.

“I have been doing this for a very long time. I have never seen this number of fatalities in a single year in my career. We already have 61 reported fatalities on this year through the end of October. That is up 13 percent from last year,” said Marketa Garner Walters, Secretary of DCFS.

Officials with the Louisiana Department of Child and Family Services held a news conference to discuss a child's overdose death.

Walters and two members from her staff addressed the media Monday, Nov. 7, about the agency’s most recent handling of a case that resulted in the death of 1-year-old Jahrei Paul.

“We’ve lost a precious child and we are deeply grieved by that death like we are the death of any child at any time,” said Walters.

Secretary Walters started with the familiar string of apologies but the WAFB I-TEAM wanted to get right to it how did this happen again and what’s being done to stop it.

SCOTTIE: “Members of the community are disgusted with these recent deaths. We have a child die, they see this familiar pattern. We come out and we apologize, we talk about numbers and we talk about caseloads but what are the consequences? Has anybody been fired or will anybody be fired because of what’s happened?”

”I’m not going to get into details of personnel actions. After the first incident back in August, there were some personnel changes that were made then. We are still in a very open investigation right now and I have no comment on any personnel actions right now,” said Walters.

A DCFS employee spoke exclusively to the WAFB I-TEAM last week, exposing the botched handling of this latest case. A day later, the agency came clean about what happened.

“I do believe that they need to be terminated,” the worker said. “How could they get away with this? If we’re on a report and we haven’t done something and we’re two days overdue, we’re going to be slapped on the hand and nothing seems to happen.”

RELATED: I-TEAM: 1-year-old dies with fentanyl in his system; DCFS worker claims negligence

Paul’s case was under the microscope of DCFS’ Baton Rouge regional office, but investigators did not follow-up because of a series of staffing changes, DCFS officials said.

DCFS officials admit they received the tip on October 20, 2022. That is roughly 10 days before the baby died. A manager who had been recently reassigned to take on cases resigned, then sent a message to her supervisor so the case could be passed on to someone else and alerted her that no contact had been made. That supervisor was out sick and did not get back to her email until after the baby was already dead.

Agency leaders also admitted they had previously investigated the child’s mother for alleged marijuana use during her pregnancies, but they found no indication of continued drug use. The agency says they followed state guidelines to investigate claims about the mom’s potential drug use but claims they never got any other complaints against the mother, nor did they receive any other reports of abuse or neglect regarding the mom.

“It’s embarrassing. It’s unacceptable. It’s a very poor reflection upon our agency,” said a DCFS worker who spoke with WAFB under the promise of anonymity.

The worker spoke exclusively to the WAFB I-TEAM, blowing the lid on the department’s most recent disastrous and deadly fumble.

“Nothing is done.. or shall I say, whatever has been done has not been effective,” the worker said.

The Baton Rouge regional office was already facing scrutiny after another child overdosed in August. Doctors warned DCFS about Mitchell Robinson, 2, being exposed to drugs over several months. However, without conclusive evidence of drug exposure case workers did not initially open an investigation.

A doctor later obtained proof the child overdosed after being exposed to opioids. DCFS assigned the case worker to look into Robinson’s case, and attempts were made to contact the boy’s family. However, when that doctor reached out to the agency with those positive drug test results, the worker took sick leave and the case was never handed off to another employee. The case sat idle, and not long after the investigation began Robinson’s life ended.

“There’s a chain of command that needs to be followed to make sure that the cases are input quickly,” said Walters. “That specific worker worked all weekend and took in three more kids. That’s three removals that you heard talk about how hard and long removals take. By the time her information got entered, it just wasn’t picked up.”

SCOTTIE: “Is there a failsafe in place to make sure that doesn’t happen?”

“There is now. That’s what when Evelyn was talking about this case assigner. That will be one person who will do nothing but watch all of these cases as they come in,” said Walters.

SCOTTIE: “Why did it take another child dying for that to be a priority?”

“I don’t think it took another death for that to be a priority. I think we have been working what we presented to the legislature and in the plan were a lot of things that are just taking time to unfold,” said Walters.

RELATED: THE INVESTIGATORS: DCFS supervisor resigns, worker suspended following botched handling of child’s overdose death

Walters on Monday said the Baton Rouge region has been overwhelmed with new cases and is bearing the brunt of the agency’s staffing shortages, with just about 9 permanent investigators currently employed.

“Even doing our very best every day, at all times, we cannot stop child abuse cases,” said Walters.

Rhenda Hodnett, Assistant Secretary of Child Welfare for DCFS said the Baton Rouge office removed 30 children from unsafe homes in October alone.

She also said the agency was plagued with an increasing number of substance exposed newborns.

“The fentanyl case that we are having are insurmountable. They are bleeding into our caseload,” said Walters.

Secretary Walters says they are making strides in bringing on more workers. They have hired about 15 new workers that should be in place by the end of the month, but even then, they say it takes about six months for those new employees to be ready to go. On top of that, the secretary says we just cannot get around the ever-growing case load. In the last six months they’ve investigated 1,326 which is a 32 percent increase over the same time period last year. She says bottom line-- they cannot keep pace with their current reality.

When asked how any additional policy changes would help ease the case load or prevent further deaths, Walters declined to provide specific answers. She also declined to answer if anyone would be disciplined for the outcome of Paul’s case.

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