Fourteen hours after his work day began, Devance Ball’s phone rang.
It was 10 p.m. A mother having a mental breakdown had abandoned her toddler in a dangerous New Orleans neighborhood.
Ball, a supervisor in the state’s Department of Children and Family Services, worried about a caseworker handling the crisis alone. He rushed to the scene to get the child help. But no foster parents were available at midnight.
So, Ball found a toddler bed and set it up in his office. The building’s lights and air conditioner had shut off for the night. He cradled and soothed the frightened boy to sleep, staying by his side until daybreak.
Then Ball drove home for a shower and breakfast. He headed right back to work.
“Sometimes our workers are stretched so thin they’re only able to do the bare minimum to make sure a child is safe,” Ball said. “And get to the next child. It takes a toll on them and their mental health. They’re exhausted.”
Severe, chronic staffing shortages are engulfing Louisiana’s child welfare agency and leaving the state’s most vulnerable children in peril. For the front-line workers still left, it’s a dire predicament of days without end, as they desperately try to save as many kids as they can.
DCFS has 460 vacant jobs with 171 openings in child welfare, a staggering total at a time when reports of violence, child abuse and neglect are soaring across the state.
Louisiana leads the nation in rates of children killed by homicide. Several have died this year after DCFS was warned they were at risk of harm.
Staff caseloads at the beleaguered agency are three times higher than the national standard. In Jefferson Parish, one caseworker said a colleague is currently juggling more than 100 cases.
And when overnight emergencies arise, workers on call don’t get extra pay, just time off — but often that’s not taken because they know their caseload only will be worse when they return.
“Your life basically revolves around DCFS,” said Amber Blanchard, who left her job there in July after four years.
In interviews, many described traumatic aspects of the job they say have taken a personal toll. The corpses of babies who have been shaken to death. Children who were molested and impregnated — by their own parents and siblings. Teens who attempted suicides; toddlers found at home, ignored and covered in roaches. Through all of it, DCFS never offered its staff therapy or other means to help them cope, workers said.
The agency’s overall staffing numbers are still down by about 30% from a high water mark in 2007. And even as the average salary for a child protection investigator has increased from $38,346 to $48,764 in the last five years, vacancies have also risen sharply from 5% to 25% in that same time period.
The agency’s leaders say they recognize that these issues demand immediate attention.
Assistant Child Welfare Secretary Rhenda Hodnett said DCFS is trying to contract with staffing companies that would provide workers to cover night and weekend shifts in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. DCFS staffers would then pick up those cases and divvy them up once they return during regular hours.
She said the agency is also asking the state’s Civil Service Commission for DCFS workers to earn paid overtime, while some workers say local DCFS offices have also offered to start paying overtime once workers exceed 16 new cases in a month.
Hodnett said DCFS is also finalizing employee assistance programs in Baton Rouge, Lafayette and Lake Charles, which could steer staffers toward mental health resources.
“People have to know that they can stop at some point and leave,” she said.
Heavy caseloads, stressful work
Devance Ball wasn’t expecting to fall in love with child welfare. He parlayed his work in juvenile detention centers into a job at DCFS at age 25, thinking the change would help him reach his then-goal of becoming a probation officer.
Soon, he was assigned to distribute food stamps in the wake of the 2016 floods that inundated the capital region. The experience of helping a community in dire need sold him on the importance of the agency, he said.
Ball later began working child protection cases, looking into families who had abused drugs and needed help, or those who had neglected or abused their children. He worked his way up the ranks; getting his master’s degree in social work, and then a promotion to the job he now holds.
Ball acknowledges that the caseloads are heavy, the work is difficult and the public perception of DCFS is not ideal. He said he’s often accused of getting paid to take other peoples’ children.
But Ball also cannot see himself working in any other field. And he said he wants to be the type of supervisor who supports DCFS workers and inspires them to stay on the job.
“It’s that support factor, making sure that workers know that at no point they’re ever alone,” he said. “And even though they may be drowning in the case assignments, that you are right there with them, working those case assignments with them, and you’re not expecting them to do something that you wouldn’t do yourself.”
But while Ball said he hopes to spend his career at DCFS — and to make the agency better along the way — others said they felt they had no choice but to go, despite their love of the work.
For Amber Blanchard, who spent her four years in Rapides Parish, the stress began to take too much of a toll.
At first, the work was fulfilling. But when she started to complain about conditions in foster homes, supervisors greeted those concerns with derision and retaliation. She blew the whistle on one foster home that was covered in Confederate flags, another where a foster parent was not giving her child medication and a third where roaches were crawling over the children’s belongings.
“Every time I turned in a report — we call it a 604 … they would have something to say about it,” Blanchard said. “It’s well-known around DCFS that you might as well not turn in a 604, because they won’t do anything about it.”
The stress gave her daily migraines, and she popped Aleve frequently for relief. When she went to the doctor earlier this year, she learned her stomach was covered in ulcers from the medication. Her doctor ordered her to take medical leave and stress management classes.
Taking a month off hardly made her feel better, as she was terrified that the children in her caseload would be overlooked. And when she came back to work, her supervisor was unsupportive — a sign, she said, that it was time to go. She took a pay cut to become a public school teacher, with fewer children in her classroom than on her DCFS caseload.
Child welfare supervisors are supposed to help their employees create plans for the children the agency is monitoring; during such discussions, supervisors often decide whether to mark allegations of abuse or neglect as valid.
The talks are supposed to happen weekly. But many DCFS supervisors are carrying their own caseloads these days, leaving little time for management. DCFS officials said in an interview that the agency plans to assemble teams of veteran supervisors who can help close cases and handle other tasks for swamped staffers.
Blanchard offered a different reason for her supervisor’s inattention — the woman instead spent her time smoking and playing on her Kindle, Blanchard charged in her resignation letter.
“My stress was not caused by helping families or children. I loved that aspect,” she wrote. “The part of this job that is stressful is the fact that every minuscule thing that must be done on a case falls on the front line workers.”
Charlotte Borst, who left DCFS this summer after 20 years as a child welfare worker, said she has post-traumatic stress disorder after her decades in the trenches. She described a couple scenes permanently etched into her brain: a foster child whose body she had to identify after he drowned, a toddler whose head swelled to the size of a football with brain matter leaking from his nose.
Still, those weren’t the cases that sent her packing.
For most of her years at the agency, workers and supervisors supported one another. But she said that in her later years, a few bad supervisors created a hostile environment.
She had planned to work at DCFS until her retirement, which is eight years away. But she said she could no longer stand missing time with her own family. Her health had declined. The weeks that she was on call, she barely slept.
“If front-line workers are broken, then so are vulnerable children,” Borst said. “When I come back from seeing a disgusting house or a child that’s been raped, I want to go hug my peer. We don’t have that.”
‘They didn’t listen to us’
The more staffers leave DCFS, the harder the jobs become for the people still there. When a worker leaves, those who remain must scramble to pick up the abandoned cases.
And with DCFS facing pressure from lawmakers over its handling of reported abuse that ended in two children’s deaths, the agency is opening new cases it may have ignored in the past. The number of investigations across the state increased by 73% from last August to this August.
It’s all adding to the pressure cooker that workers experience.
A child protection investigator in Jefferson — who asked for anonymity because she feared retaliation — said she spends too much time responding to reports that should not have been accepted, such as a complaint about a child having dirty school uniforms. Those cases take away from time she said DCFS should be devoting to serious cases of abuse.
She’s also had to respond to as many as four top-priority cases during a single overnight shift, yet DCFS still expected her to be ready for her regular day shift the next morning.
“Even if we were fully staffed, the way that they’re running the department, it still won’t work,” she said. “You can’t even speak on it because there’s no point person to say ‘Hey, I’d like to throw in a suggestion. Nothing works.’”
Caseloads vary by region, but several caseworkers said in interviews that they averaged between 25 and 30 cases a month at their most stressed. The state reported that it averaged 87 completed reports per worker in 2020. The national average was 67, or 30% less.
The consequences for overlooking a case can be deadly.
DCFS received three reports about Mitchell Robinson, a Baton Rouge 2-year-old, this spring and summer after he was hospitalized from overdosing on fentanyl. The agency says that in between receiving the second and third report about Mitchell, his caseworker left on sick leave.
Though her cases should have gone to her supervisor, nobody stepped in to pick them up. Mitchell died from a fentanyl overdose more than a week after the final warning to DCFS.
Ball said it’s hard to work in child protection: A single email or phone call can change the trajectory of the day, and there aren’t enough workers to take on all of the cases. And after covering chaotic night shifts, there’s no reprieve before workers have to go back to their caseloads.
With six years at DCFS under his belt, Ball is considered a veteran. He said the newest worker in his office shadowed another worker one night in what ended up being a fatality case.
“If you can deal with that, then you’ll be good,” he said, adding that the job is meaningful and rewarding, though overwhelming at times.
Blanchard, meanwhile, is frustrated that DCFS officials have professed shock in recent legislative hearings when presented with complaints about the workplace environment. She said front-line workers have been warning them for years that unsustainable work schedules and toxic office politics would drive workers away and have deadly consequences for the children in their care.
“They didn’t listen to us,” she said. “And now it seems like they want to listen, but it’s because they’re in so much trouble.”