One week before baby Jahrei Paul died on Halloween in Baton Rouge, someone called Louisiana’s child welfare hotline to warn that he and his siblings needed help.
Paul’s mother and grandmother were using drugs, a caller said. They conveyed an urgent, and prescient, concern: “Y’all need to just go out there before another child dies.”
Paul’s family already had a lengthy history with the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services, according to sources and case documents provided to The Advocate | The Times-Picayune. The agency had validated reports of abuse or neglect against Paul’s mother in 2016, 2018 and 2021.
When the anonymous call about Paul’s family came in on Oct. 21, the documents reflect that intake workers classified the case as their second-highest priority on a scale that runs from one to five. Agency policy requires that workers make contact with families within 48 hours of “priority 2” reports, but it took DCFS four days to open an investigation, according to a case log.
It’s unclear if the worker ever visited the family.
Ten days later, on Oct. 31, DCFS received another report. Paul, who had big, brown eyes and curly, dark hair, was dead. He was just 20 months old.
The East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner’s Office said Friday that the baby died from “acute fentanyl toxicity,” with his manner of death still unclear pending further tests. The Baton Rouge Police Department announced Friday that they are investigating the death, while DCFS files reflect that police searched Paul’s father’s house and they found needles and insulin but no diapers, formula or other baby items. Nobody has been arrested.
DCFS spokesperson Catherine Heitman said Friday that "DCFS is deeply grieved by the death of this child." She declined to comment on specifics about the case, citing state laws that require the agency to keep mum about child abuse investigations.
She added that if a fatality case is determined to be linked to abuse or neglect, “the law may allow us to provide additional information at a later date.”
"Despite our profound workforce challenges, we are fully committed to investigating cases according to best practices and to the best of our ability," she said.
Paul’s death is the latest in a spate of deaths of children in Baton Rouge this year, and it comes at a time when the agency charged with protecting children in Louisiana is under intense scrutiny. The baby's death set off calls from Louisiana lawmakers Friday who demanded for more investigation and said the agency's leadership needs to be re-evaluated.
"I don’t know how else we can look at how serious of a concern this is without bringing the leadership into question," said State Sen. Beth Mizell, R-Franklinton.
East Baton Rouge Parish has already ruled 12 deaths of children under age 5 this year as homicides — double last year’s number and triple the four preceding years. Those deaths have happened at the hands of parents and caretakers who have hoisted toddlers off bridges, pounded their bodies with bruises and plied them with alcohol.
DCFS has been under the microscope since 2-year-old Mitchell Robinson died in June in Baton Rouge after the agency failed to follow up on three warnings about him. Robinson overdosed on fentanyl; his mother was charged with second-degree murder and has asked for drug treatment. His death happened around the same time as the death of 2-year-old Ezekiel Harry, who was found stuffed in a trash can in Houma after a neighbor said she had tried to warn DCFS and police of the child’s maltreatment.
Their tragedies prompted the Legislature to convene oversight hearings for the agency.
“I will do everything in my human power to ensure that another child does not die, period, but especially from my district," said State Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, who represents the region where Paul's and Robinson's families lived.
A spokesperson for Gov. John Bel Edwards, who has so far stood by DCFS Secretary Marketa Garner Walters, did not respond to messages Friday.
The children's deaths have come as DCFS has been trying to cope with a surge in abuse and neglect reports, even as the agency has 419 vacancies, including 174 in child welfare. Workers say they are carrying impossibly heavy caseloads, and that some of their backlogs exceed 100 cases per person.
On Tuesday — the day after Paul died — caseworkers in other regions received an email titled “Emergency in Baton Rouge” that asked for 12 staffers to spend the next week working in the capital. The email said workers would receive a $625 bonus, plus overtime, on top of their regular salary. Overtime is rare for DCFS workers.
Heitman said the email was unrelated to the baby’s death.
Past complaints validated; mother noncompliant
Paul’s family now has two open cases with DCFS: his death investigation and the original call about his mother’s drug use. Caseworkers are investigating neglect in both cases, and documented that both parents have histories of drug use.
Paul was born premature and substance-exposed, according to the case file. And from April until November of 2021, DCFS’ family services division kept an eye on the family.
DCFS officials generally assign cases to that division when they believe children can be kept in their homes while their caretakers receive services, such as drug treatment. The family had been routed through the same program for a month in 2018.
In 2018 and 2021, caseworkers wrote that Paul’s mother was noncompliant. Even so, it does not appear that her children were removed to foster care, which requires a juvenile court judge’s order.
DCFS casenotes say that on Monday, Paul’s dad asked a friend or relative to bring the baby to the hospital after he was “not acting right and he stopped breathing.” The friend dropped the baby off at Our Lady of the Lake North and left before law enforcement arrived.
The case notes show doctors made no preliminary findings about Paul’s death, and saw no signs of trauma on his body.
Unclear in the records is where Paul’s mother was when he died. DCFS documented that his mother was jailed in Texas on drug charges. But one week earlier, she’d been reported to be using drugs at home in Baton Rouge.
His mother posted a video Wednesday on social media that mourned the loss of her son.
“I tried to be the best mother I can be for my babies,” she wrote. “My baby really gone.”
Death comes after DCFS vowed reform
DCFS leaders have told state legislators that they are revamping policies and holding hiring fairs across the state to try to turn things around. They’ve recently announced plans to hire 50 nurses who would visit homes of infants who are drug-exposed at birth.
Agency officials have dropped the prerequisites for caseworkers, who once had to have a college degree, and raised entry-level salaries by nearly $10,000. They’ve also adopted a new policy that requires immediate follow-up visits whenever medical providers call in reports of neglect or abuse for children under 3.
But Paul's death shows that DCFS needs a deeper overhaul, said Baton Rouge civil rights attorney Ron Haley, who represents the family of Robinson. He said it's unthinkable that so soon after Robinson's death, DCFS could miss another case in the same city where a baby died from fentanyl exposure.
“Based on this tragedy, the secretary of the department needs to resign or be terminated,” Haley said. He said he will also push for federal oversight of DCFS.
Staff writer James Finn contributed to this report.