BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - A new audit of Louisiana's child welfare agency raises questions about how well it is able to care for some of the state's most fragile children.
The report released by the Legislative Auditor's office suggests the staff of the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) is overworked and is also failing to perform background checks on foster parents. It also notes a high turnover rate amongst the department's field workers.
"This is exactly what we thought we would get," said DCFS Sec. Marketa Walters, noting that the audit's findings were not surprising.
Between 2012 and 2016, the auditor's report shows the agency allowed nine foster care providers with prior cases of abuse or neglect to care for foster kids without getting required approval from the department head. In one case, the provider had "multiple prior valid cases of abuse and neglect" but was still allowed to serve as a foster parent and"subsequently physically abused another foster child in their care."
Walters noted that the while the case of abuse occurred before she took office, the problem that allowed it to happen persists. Her agency, she said, is short-staffed, putting the safety of foster kids at risk.
The report also cites dozens of cases within the last year and a half where required criminal background checks were not completed on foster providers.
"What we are asking these caseworkers to do is just physically impossible," Walters said.
From 2012 to 2016, the report shows the number of case workers decreased while at the same time the number of foster kids steadily rose. On average in 2016, caseworkers each managed 16 kids, much more than the 10 cases recommended in DCFS policy.
"Doing more with less is not really something you can apply to children's lives," said Karen LeBlanc, the assistant legislative auditor. She helped compile the report. "Some agencies will say they do not have enough staff, and while that may be true, this agency definitely needs more staff, needs more caseworkers."
Because of the intense workload, turnover among field staff has also been a problem, adding further instability to the lives of foster kids.
The secretary noted that things have improved since Gov. John Bel Edwards took office. The new administration has worked to protect the agency's funding.
"We're getting stable, we haven't been able to grow and add the additional staff that we need. We're still multiples steps from where we need to be," Walters said.
However, Walters said that in order for that to happen, her agency will require more funding. That could be a hard sell with fiscal hawks in the legislature, especially with the state still on rocky financial footing.
"Either children matter or they don't. Either we invest in them or we don't. It's a choice. We can make a choice," Walters said.
The full report can be found below: