Louisiana’s troubled child welfare agency hires hundreds — but challenges remain

Louisiana's troubled child welfare agency hires hundreds — but challenges remain
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Louisiana’s troubled Department of Children and Family Services has rapidly hired hundreds of new employees in recent months, shrinking vacancies in its child caseworker ranks to 55 — down from 170 of those openings last summer, officials say.

At an oversight hearing on Wednesday, state lawmakers said the hires show promising strides at an agency grappling with massive scrutiny over a series of child fatalities.

“I think we’ve made tremendous progress,” Senate Health and Welfare Committee Chairman Fred Mills, R-Parks, told DCFS officials on Wednesday.

Amid the scourge of the opioid crisis and cuts in pandemic-era federal food benefits, welfare workers still face a wave of increasingly dire cases, leaving staff overburdened and struggling to keep up.

Over the past five years, urgent child welfare crises — those requiring response from a DCFS caseworker within a 48-hour window — comprised an average 66% of all DCFS cases, Ricks said. That figure has soared to 74% in recent months. The number of cases continues to outpace the staff available to work them, officials said, with some workers juggling more than 20 new cases each month when they’re meant to have 10.

“What keeps me up at night is when people say ‘You’re asking too much of me,’ and you know (they’re) right,” DCFS Secretary Terri Ricks told lawmakers.

New workers should be given up to seven new cases until six months after their date of hire, said Heidi Kinchen, a DCFS spokesperson. Kinchen said many new workers have had to exceed those limits due to “extenuating circumstances.”

Ricks’ remarks came in the latest of several hearings convened by the Health and Welfare Committee to scrutinize DCFS staffing, management and resources. Since last year, state leaders have cited chronic understaffing and funding woes as crises piled up. 

Ricks succeeded former DCFS Secretary Marketa Garner Walters in November, after Walters resigned amid public outcry over the deaths of multiple children whose circumstances DCFS had been warned about. She pledged to help close staffing and communication gaps at DCFS that have allowed neglected children to fall through the cracks.

Hiring at DCFS has picked up across the agency, and not just of caseworkers. The department increased its total employee rolls by 326 total workers since July of 2022, Ricks said.

But “even if we had all available positions filled, we would probably need more to handle the workload,” Ricks said. 

The agency is also bracing for a new crisis among families who receive food aid, as a pandemic-era supplement to the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, expires.

A quarter of Louisianans have received DCFS services since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, when the federal government increased funding for those who needed help buying food. Between March 2020 and December 2022, DCFS, which administers the SNAP program on the federal government’s behalf, issued over $2 billion in emergency allotments — an average of $59.5 million each month to a total of just over 418,000 households, according to a DCFS estimate.

Those food assistance allotments returned to their regular amounts for most families in February, leaving some with hundreds of dollars less per month to put food on the table.

Some families who get SNAP benefits could have their monthly aid amount from the special pandemic program cut nearly in half. A family of three on SNAP benefits could see their amount reduce from $740 to about $335, a DCFS estimate says.

DCFS will likely receive an uptick in food assistance inquiries in the next week as people realize the extra allotment has disappeared, Ricks said. Around the country, long lines have appeared at food banks in recent weeks as people face the end of the pandemic state of emergency.

Ricks said people looking for ways to make up the difference should turn to local food banks and farmers markets — and each other.

“This is a time where as neighbors, we should think about how we’re sharing food,” she said.

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About Mary Weyand 14613 Articles
Mary founded Scoop Tour with an aim to bring relevant and unaltered news to the general public with a specific view point for each story catered by the team. She is a proficient journalist who holds a reputable portfolio with proficiency in content analysis and research. With ample knowledge about the Automobile industry, she also contributes her knowledge for the Automobile section of the website.

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