The state agencies charged with helping vulnerable Louisiana children have been buffeted by controversies for the past year, with revelations about serious lapses of protocol rocking both the Department of Children and Family Services and the Office of Juvenile Justice. Leaders of both agencies resigned late last year amid scrutiny, each saying their workers were understaffed and overwhelmed.
Louisiana lawmakers are now considering increasing accountability for those agencies by creating an Office of the State Child Ombudsman. Senate Bill 137 received unanimous support this week in the State Senate and now moves to Louisiana’s House of Representatives.
The ombudsman would review complaints about the treatment of children in state care and brief the Legislature annually on their findings. Their job would entail recommending changes to how Louisiana’s state agencies serve children and releasing a report every two years on the conditions of children in confinement in state-run facilities.
Louisiana’s lack of any form of children’s ombudsman makes it an outlier. Research by Rick Wheat, president of Louisiana United Methodist Children and Family Services, shows that Louisiana is just one of five states without any ombudsman services for children. All five states that lack an ombudsman also rank among the worst in the nation in terms of child well-being.
“My whole goal was to create a voice for the child,” said Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, the author of the bill. “It’s going to be a game-changer for our state. It definitely adds more layers, more eyes for our children and making sure we’re providing them with better outcomes.”
Several advocates for children agreed that an ombudsman could be an effective check on how children are treated in state care. But some questioned the bill’s proposed setup, which places the ombudsman in the governor’s office, serving at the governor’s pleasure.
It’s critically important for a child ombudsman to be independent, said Moira O’Neill, who was the first Child Advocate in New Hampshire and who studies children’s ombudsmen across the nation. O’Neill stressed that she thinks the basics of Louisiana’s proposed law are strong and said she’s excited about the possibility of it.
But she said the law could be made even better by removing the ombudsman role from the governor’s office. An ombudsman is supposed to be a watchdog over agencies and leaders that the governor oversees and appoints. The most effective setups place an ombudsman under control of the Legislature, she said, similar to Louisiana’s legislative auditor.
“If your boss is the governor and he controls your salary and whether you’re employed, and if you’re in his office, he might ask you, ‘What are you investigating? What are you reporting on? I don’t want you to investigate that,’” O’Neill said. “That kind of influence can really affect you reporting on what happens in his agencies.”
Ombudsman should identify trends
The tragic deaths of children last year after unheeded warnings from DCFS prompted Barrow to sponsor the bill, she said. But the ombudsman’s oversight would not be limited to DCFS and OJJ. The proposed law says the ombudsman should recommend changes related to juvenile justice, child care, foster care and access to physical and mental health treatment.
The state would spend $295,000 annually, on average, from the general fund for the next five years to create the office. The ombudsman would earn $147,231 in salary and related benefits, with an administrative assistant earning $75,996, according to the bill’s fiscal note. The rest of the money would go toward operating expenses, professional services and equipment.
“This is like a cornerstone of what we still need to build out in Louisiana, this idea of child well-being infrastructure,” Wheat said.
One of the most important early steps that an ombudsman can take is setting up a data collection system, O’Neill said. At minimum, she said the ombudsman needs to track the complaints they receive, what they allege and who’s making them.
As trends develop, those can guide future policy. O’Neill said she used to track instances of children being physically restrained, and then she could examine details each instance had in common to recommend policy changes. If restraints were often used early in the morning before children ate, it might be a sign that they needed to be fed earlier, she said.
“If we’re getting 42 parents calling because they can’t get XYZ, that’s a problem,” said Susan East Nelson, executive director of Louisiana Partnership for Children and Families.
The goal is to eventually have an ombudsman in every region of the state, Nelson said. She said she envisions the role as someone who is a trusted advocate for kids and who can help to steer them and their parents to resources.
DCFS Secretary Terri Ricks said an ombudsman could help to assist families as they navigate multiple agencies’ programs and also improve collaboration between agencies.
The staffing outlook for DCFS has also improved. The agency has cut overall vacancies in half since a year ago, and gone from 171 vacancies in child welfare last September to 49 child welfare vacancies at present. Caseloads, however, remain heavy: The number of open investigations has increased by 34% since the start of the fiscal year.
Agency failures might still be secret
Children’s ombudsmen elsewhere have been able to release to the public detailed reports about children who died in state custody and the failures that led to those deaths. But the language in Louisiana’s proposed law makes it unclear whether an ombudsman here would be able to do the same.
While the proposed law would give an ombudsman wide leeway to obtain confidential records, the bill only makes one exception for breaking the secrecy: if “the state child ombudsman determines that disclosure is in the general public interest and the disclosure does not violate existing state or federal confidentiality laws.”
But existing state laws do mandate secrecy in most child welfare cases, and only allow state officials to choose to give public disclosure of “summary information” in cases when children either die or nearly die. They can also “confirm, clarify or correct” information that other sources make public. Nothing in state law ever requires DCFS to make a case public.
As the bill has moved through the Legislature, its language has changed in favor of more confidentiality. Originally, the bill simply said the ombudsman could decide when “disclosure is in the general public interest.”
Another recent amendment to the bill on the Senate floor requires the ombudsman to notify legislators of a child dying from abuse or neglect in their district within 24 hours. Several times last year, lawmakers complained they heard about children dying under DCFS’ watch from news stories.
While the bill’s language about children’s rights is good, it still lacks a mechanism to truly hold the state accountable, said attorney Stephen Dixon, who has represented children locally and across the country in abuse and neglect cases.
Dixon said that without the ability to litigate, it’s unlikely that a children’s ombudsman can force systemic change.
Push for Ezekiel’s Law
The ombudsman bill is not the only piece of legislation that grew out of last year’s child welfare crisis.
Senate Bill 64 would create “Ezekiel’s Law” named after 2-year-old Ezekiel Harry, whose body was found stuffed in a trash can last summer in Houma. Harry’s mother and her boyfriend were both charged with first-degree murder and obstruction of justice in the case, which has yet to go to trial.
A neighbor reported that she’d called both DCFS and police multiple times about concerns that Harry and his siblings were being abused, though DCFS said they had no record of it. DCFS case files, however, show the agency had previously investigated a complaint against Harry’s mother that was marked invalid.
Ezekiel’s Law, sponsored by Sen. Mike Fesi, R-Houma, would create a “Partners in Protecting Children Subcommittee” to Louisiana’s Children’s Cabinet Advisory board.