Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services Secretary Marketa Garner Walters resigned Thursday, ending a tenure of six-plus years that took a tumultuous turn recently when multiple neglected children died on DCFS’ watch.

Walters has been under fire for months over several high-profile cases of abused and neglected children who slipped through the agency cracks, including two Baton Rouge children in the span of four months who died from fentanyl after DCFS received urgent warnings about their families. The most recent of those deaths happened on Halloween, with frustration over it culminating in Walters’ resignation Thursday.

She wrote in a resignation letter that she was proud of her work at the agency, which included setting up emergency shelters during major hurricanes and increasing the number of foster children who were adopted. But she said unprecedented reports of abuse and neglect have created an “impossible task” for child welfare workers.

"While we are not perfect, and struggle to find staff in this post-COVID, great resignation and remote work environment, those that are committed to the service of others are here, in the arena, fighting every day to do their best to help the children and families who come through our doors," she wrote. "They deserve the respect and admiration of others, not the blame and fault-finding that is at our door."

Gov. John Bel Edwards appointed Walters to her post in 2016, and announced the news of her departure on Thursday by saying he had accepted her resignation. Amid the controversies at DCFS, Edwards said that the state was bringing in a third-party organization to review the agency’s policies, practices and personnel.

Edwards said Louisiana is not alone in its challenges for child welfare, but stressed that the agency charged with protecting kids needed new ideas.

“Those issues include staff retention, high worker caseloads, increased substance and domestic abuse, and sadly the tragic deaths of innocent children," the governor said. "While there are no quick solutions, it is urgent that we find new and effective ways of addressing the problems to make certain we provide the help our families need and deserve and to move our agency forward."

Edwards appointed Terri Porche Ricks, currently a deputy secretary, as the agency's acting secretary. He said the state will search for a permanent replacement, whom he intends to name "as soon as possible."

Rocky start

Walters both entered and exited her job as DCFS secretary in difficult times.

She inherited an agency that had 1,000 fewer workers and a budget half the size of what it had been in 2008, when former Gov. Bobby Jindal took office. Edwards’ transition committee in 2016 warned that the agency was “sorely underfunded and cannot do any more than it does under current funding restraints.”

While Edwards did not further cut the DCFS budget, the agency also saw little improvement over the years in funding and staffing allotments. Walters pleaded with state legislators for more resources each year, telling stories of overwhelmed caseworkers and children aging out of foster care without anywhere to turn.

But beyond its funding problems, the agency repeatedly found itself in controversy over the past two years.

DCFS faced scrutiny from state lawmakers last year amid allegations that it had repeatedly failed to protect the two victims in a child sex abuse case in Livingston Parish. John Mack, whose politically connected relatives include state Rep. Sherman Mack and his brother, Livingston Parish Councilman Shane Mack, was arrested in 2021. That was two years after DCFS investigators had validated child sex abuse allegations against him, but otherwise took little action.

And in 2020, DCFS came under fire after removing a toddler from the care of a couple who’d been raising him since he was seven weeks old and placing him into the care of an out-of-state uncle. The foster parents, who are suing DCFS, said that when they sought to adopt the child, caseworkers never told them his uncle was interested in adopting him as well.

Escalating problems

The problems at DCFS grew more alarming this year.

Walters has acknowledged in both news conferences and legislative testimony that the agency is in crisis, with workers quitting in droves while reports of abuse and neglect across Louisiana are skyrocketing.

DCFS has more than 400 vacancies, with 174 of them in the agency's child welfare department.

In the span of four months, at least three children have died after warnings to DCFS. Two-year-old Mitchell Robinson overdosed on fentanyl and died in late June after he'd been hospitalized multiple times in the months leading up to his death, and after three reports had been to DCFS made about his family. Caseworkers never made contact with the family or tried to remove him from their care before his death.

Then on Halloween, 20-month-old Jahrei Paul died from acute fentanyl toxicity, according to the East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner’s Office. Ten days before his death, an anonymous caller warned that his family members were using drugs around him, and expressed fear that he would die, according to a case file provided to The Advocate | The Times-Picayune.

DCFS caseworkers — who'd previously validated three reports of neglect for drug usage against Paul's mother — did not check on his family before he died. The agency said his mother was incarcerated in Texas when he died, and that he was in his father's care.

Meanwhile, the corpse of 2-year-old Ezekiel Harry of Houma was found stuffed in a duffel bag inside a trash can this summer – also after a neighbor said she’d warned both DCFS and police, and DCFS had previously opened an investigation into Harry’s family.

Caseworkers say their workloads are draining and their days are endless, with some having to spend the night in DCFS offices with children who have no place to go. Many who have quit this year say that they loved the work of helping children in need, but that their attempts to push for change inside of DCFS were often met with derision and retaliation from supervisors.

Final blow

At the beginning of this week, Walters said she had no plans to resign despite outrage over Paul’s recent death. Walters, whose salary was $143,000 annually, said that she served at the governor’s pleasure and described them as being in “lockstep” about the circumstances around the baby’s death.

But during the same news conference, Walters acknowledged that DCFS is in crisis. She said the state has opened investigations into 61 children this year who died under suspicion of abuse or neglect – a number far higher than she said she could remember having seen in her career.

“Along with child welfare workers around the state, I honor the 61 lives that we have lost thus far in 2022,” she wrote in her resignation letter.

Walters wrote in her resignation letter that she will take personal leave until she retires on Dec. 31.

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