On Feb. 15, an arrest warrant was issued for a north Louisiana employee of the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) following an investigation of more than two months by the Office of Inspector General.
Kimberly D. Lee, 49, of Calhoun in Ouachita Parish, subsequently surrendered to authorities and was subjected to the indignity of being booked into East Baton Rouge Parish Prison on Feb. 17 after being accused of filing false reports about mandatory monthly in-home visits with children in foster care.
As is often the case, however, there is much more to this story.
A month earlier, on Jan. 10, LouisianaVoice received a confidential email from a retired DCFS supervisor who revealed an alarming trend in her former agency:
“I served in most programs within the agency, foster care, investigations, and adoptions,” she wrote. “Over my career I witnessed the eight years of (Bobby) Jindal’s ‘improvements.’
“Those ‘improvements’ endanger children’s lives daily. The blight is spread from the Secretary to the lowliest clerical worker in the agency. People are overworked and underpaid but it’s not just that. People are so distraught from the unrelenting stress that children are in danger. Add to that the inexperience of most front line workers and their supervisors’ inability to properly train new staff.”
She then dropped a bombshell that should serve as a wake-up call to everyone who cares or pretends to care about the welfare of children—from Gov. John Bel Edwards down to the most obscure freshman legislator:
“In the Shreveport Region, the regional administrator (recently) told workers that they may make ‘drive-by’ visits to foster homes, which means talking to the foster parents in their driveway. Policy says that workers will see both the child and the foster parent in the home, interviewing each separately (emphasis added). A lot of abuse goes on in foster homes. Some foster families are truly doing the best they can but they need counseling and guidance from their workers. The regional administrator’s answer to that one? Have the foster parent call their home development worker—another person who can’t get her job done now.”
She wrote that she had heard of two separate incidents “where a child new to foster care was taken to a foster home and left without paperwork, without contact information for the person in charge of the case and without knowing even the child’s name.”
Moreover, she said, vehicles used in the Shreveport Region “are old, run-down, and repairs are not allowed. The last time new tires were bought was in 2014. When one (of the vehicles) breaks down, they just tow it away. No replacement is ordered.”
Could those factors have pushed Lee to fudge on her reports? Did the actions attributed to her constitute payroll fraud or did budgetary cuts force her into cutting corners in order to keep up with an ever-increasing caseload? Lee says yes to the latter, that she was told by supervisors to get things done, “no matter what.” Child welfare experts said her actions and arrest shone a needed light on problems at DCFS: low morale, high turnover, fewer workers handing greater numbers of caseloads, and increasing numbers of children entering foster care.
To find our own answers, LouisianaVoice turned to a document published on Jan. 5 of this year by the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group of Montgomery, Alabama.
The 77-page report, entitled A Review of Child Welfare, the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services, points to:
- A growing turnover rate for DCFS over the past three years from 19.32 percent in calendar year 2012 to 24.26 percent in 2014;
- A 33 percent reduction in the number of agency employees to respond to abuse reports;
- A 27 percent cut in funding since fiscal 2009, Bobby Jindal’s first year in office;
- An increase in the number of foster homes of 5 percent;
- An increase of 120.5 percent in the number of valid substance exposed newborns, from 557 to 1,330;
- A trend beginning in 2011 that shows 4,077 children entered foster care but only 3,767 exited in 2015;
- A 19 percent decrease in the number of child welfare staff positions filled statewide from 1,389 in 2009 to 1,125 in 2015.
- Of the 764 caseworkers, 291, or 38 percent had two years’ experience or less and 444 (58 percent) had five years or less experience.
Moreover, figures provided by the Department of Civil Service showed that of the agency’s 3,400 employees, 44.5 percent made less than $40,000 a year and 19 percent earned less than $30,000.
In 2014 (the latest year for which figures are available), the median income for Louisiana for a single-person household was $42,406, fourth-lowest in the nation, as compared to the national single-person median income of $53,657.
“The stresses within the system are at risk of causing poorer outcomes for some children and families,” the report says in its executive summary. “…Recent falling outcome trends in some of the areas that have been an agency strength in the past are early warnings of future challengers.”
Despite years of budgetary cuts under the Jindal administration, Louisiana has maintained “a high level of performance in achieving permanency for children in past years and currently is ranked first among states in adoption performance,” the report said.
The budget cuts, however, “have negatively affected the work force, service providers, organizational capacity and increasingly risk significantly affecting child and family outcomes” which has produced a front-line workforce environment “constrained by high caseload, much of which is caused by high turnover and increasing administrative duties and barriers that compromise time spent with children and families.”
And it is that threat to “compromise time spent with children and families” that brings us back to the case of Kimberly Lee and to the email LouisianaVoice received from the retired DCFS supervisor who cited the directive for caseworkers to make “drive-by” visits to foster homes, leaving children with foster homes with no paperwork, contact information or without even knowing the children’s names, and of the state vehicles in disrepair.
It’s small wonder then, in a story about how Jindal wrecked the Louisiana economy, reporter Alan Pyke quoted DCFS Secretary Marketa Garner-Walters as telling the Washington Post if lawmakers can’t resolve the current budget crisis, many Louisiana state agencies will see budget cuts of 60 percent. http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2016/03/07/3757416/jindal-louisiana-budget-crisis/
As ample illustration of Bobby Jindal’s commitment to social programs for the poor and sick, remember he yanked $4.5 million from the developmentally disadvantaged in 2014 and gave it to a Indy-type racetrack in Jefferson Parish run by a member of the Chouest family, one of the richest families in Louisiana—but a generous donor to Jindal’s gubernatorial campaigns and a $1 million contributor to his super PAC for his silly presidential run.
Well, thanks to the havoc wreaked by Jindal and his Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols, the legislature did find it necessary to pass the Nichols’ penny tax (not original with us but the contribution of one of our readers who requested anonymity) to help offset the $900 million-plus deficit facing the state just through the end of the current fiscal year which ends on June 30.
Were legislators successful? Not if you listen to Tyler Bridges, one of the more knowledgeable reporters on the Baton Rouge Advocate staff. “Legislators were neither willing to cut spending enough, nor raise taxes enough nor eliminate the long list of tax breaks that favor one politically connected business or industry over another,” he wrote in Sunday’s Advocate (emphasis added). http://theadvocate.com/news/15167974-77/a-louisiana-legislature-that-ducked-tough-budget-decisions-during-its-special-meeting-convenes-again
As is all too typical, most of the real “legislation” was done in the flurry of activity leading up the final hectic minutes of the special session, leaving even legislators to question what they had accomplished. In military parlance, it would be called a cluster—.
But that should be understandable. After all, 43, or fully 30 percent of the current crop of legislators, had to work their legislative duties around their busy schedules that called upon them to attend no fewer than 50 campaign fundraisers (that’s right, some like Neil Riser, Katrina Jackson, and Patrick Connick had more than one), courtesy of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association, the Beer Industry League, CenturyLink and a few well-placed lobbyists. http://www.nola.com/politics/index.ssf/2016/03/louisiana_special_session_fund.html
It is, after all, what many of them are best at. (Seven of those were held at the once-exclusive Camelot Club on the top floor of the Chase Bank South Tower. We say “once-exclusive” because last week the Camelot announced that it was closing its doors after 49 years. Restrictions on lobbyists’ expenditures on lunches for legislators was given as one cause for the drop in club membership from 900 to 400. Not mentioned was the fact that Ruth’s Chris and Sullivan’s steak restaurants in Baton Rouge have become favorite hangouts for legislators and lobbyists during legislative sessions. One waiter told LouisianaVoice during the 2015 session that one could almost find a quorum of either chamber on any given night during the session—accompanied, of course, by lobbyists who only wanted good government.) https://www.businessreport.com/article/camelot-club-closing-afternoon-can-no-longer-viable-club-owner-says
Bridges accurately called the new taxes that will expire in 2018 “the type of short-term fix” favored by Jindal and the previous legislature “that they had vowed not to repeat.”
Can we get an Amen?
In the meantime, he observed that Gov. John Bel Edwards and Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, because the legislature still left a $50 million hole in the current budget, will have to decide which state programs will be cut—again.
Emphasizing the risks to children, Garner-Walters told legislators in a committee hearing during the just-completed special session that state DCFS staff numbers 3,400, down a third from the 5,100 it had in 2008. “You can’t just not investigate child abuse,” she said.
Former Baton Rouge Juvenile Court Judge Kathleen Richey, now heading up Louisiana CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate), a child advocacy non-profit, has expressed her concern over the budgetary cuts that make DCFS caseworkers’ jobs so much more difficult.
“Our political leaders need to understand that while infrastructure represents a physical investment in our future, our children represent an intellectual investment in our future,” she said. “We have to protect innocent children who have no one else to stand up for them.”