Louisiana’s child welfare system has been rocked by the deaths of multiple children this year, leading to legislative hearings, the resignation of the agency's leader and questions about what could have been done to better protect those under its care.
Fed-up foster parents, advocacy groups and legislators are demanding more and better oversight. Some are now looking at how other states keep watch on their child welfare systems and calling for an independent authority that can investigate the agency and make findings public.
Unlike most other states, Louisiana lacks an office of ombudsman for its Department of Children and Family Services — a position with the power to review how the agency has handled cases.
“There isn’t a neutral party of accountability,” said Jennifer Matthews, a foster mother in DeRidder.
Ombudsmen are public servants who can investigate agency decision-making leading up to a child’s death, review systemic breakdowns and brief legislators and members of the public on any findings. They often field complaints from children in state custody as well as from their foster and biological parents.
Rick Wheat is the president of Louisiana United Methodist Children and Family Services, an organization that runs children’s homes, recruits foster parents and advocates for children. According to his research, Louisiana is one of just five states — all ranked among the worst in the nation for child well-being — without an ombudsman. He is pushing for the state to add one to its ranks.
Wheat said that with Louisiana’s child welfare and juvenile justice systems both plagued by abuse, staffing shortages and dangerous conditions, he hopes that such a figure could hold each system accountable.
Every headline about children suffering in the child welfare system or juvenile jails, Wheat said, is like a flashlight shining in the dark.
“Having an ombudsman would be like having the lights on all the time,” Wheat said. “Nobody trips in the shadows and life becomes brighter for the children and families because they’re benefiting from ombudsman services.”
An independent voice
At least 38 states have ombudsmen services for children, according to the National Center for State Courts, including some of Louisiana's deep South neighbors.
Successful ombudsmen offices have a few features in common, according to Moira O’Neill, who served as the director of New Hampshire’s Office of the Child Advocate and as assistant child advocate in Connecticut.
The most crucial is that an ombudsman needs to be independent, she said. It’s also important for laws that create ombudsman positions to say that they should advise the governor and legislature, and for offices to research best practices and trends across the country. O'Neill said they should regularly interview and talk to children to center their voices at the Capitol.
In many instances, she said that her job required walking through how caseworkers responded to reports of abuse and neglect before a fatality or before a child was seriously injured. That meant getting them to trust that she wasn’t trying to pin blame, but rather identify systemic breakdowns.
Without a child advocate or ombudsman in Louisiana, O’Neill questioned how the state could even elicit feedback.
“In Louisiana, kids and families don’t have a voice,” O’Neill said. “If there’s no mechanism for them to bring forth their concerns and input that might be helpful, that’s like not having your First Amendment right to bring grievance against the government.”
Need for transparency
Part of the need for such a role, Wheat said, is the broader issue of transparency surrounding DCFS.
A lack of public accountability is another way in which Louisiana is unlike most other states: even when a child in DCFS’ care dies, their case remains cloaked in secrecy.
State law only allows for “limited public disclosure of summary information” in cases of death or near death and to “confirm, clarify or correct” information that other sources make public. The law does not ever require DCFS to release information about cases, even after deaths.
“If a child dies, that has to be really opened up and looked at by serious people,” said Stephen Dixon, a Baton Rouge-based attorney who has represented children across the nation in abuse and neglect cases. “Louisiana needs that really badly right now.”
The consequence of the lack of transparency is that the news that’s dripped out this year about DCFS’ failures has come from other sources, leaving DCFS to respond later.
After 2-year-old Mitchell Robinson overdosed on fentanyl and died in June, DCFS’ involvement in his case only became public after a police report explained that the boy had been hospitalized twice with apparent overdoses in the months leading up to his death.
The hospital called DCFS three times, and caseworkers failed to make contact with Robinson’s family before he died.
After 20-month-old Jahrei Paul overdosed on fentanyl and died in October, The Advocate | The Times-Picayune obtained case files that showed DCFS had received a warning about him 10 days before his death. The agency once again failed to make contact with his family before he died.
Those are the sort of cases that an ombudsman might review, if Louisiana had one.
Current oversight questioned
DCFS officials declined to answer specific questions for this story, including what avenues are available for people who have complaints about the state’s child welfare system.
“Our full focus right now is on stabilizing the workforce so we can have timely responses to children and families,” said DCFS spokesperson Catherine Heitman in response to questions for this story.
Gov. John Bel Edwards named Terri Porche Ricks as DCFS secretary last week, after former DCFS Secretary Marketa Garner Walters resigned last month amid outcry over the agency’s failures. Edwards also recently said on his radio show that he plans to increase the agency's funding to help hire additional staff.
To be sure, Louisiana has some mechanisms for oversight in place currently, but advocates have questioned their effectiveness.
The legislature’s Senate Health and Welfare Committee has called oversight hearings for DCFS, and Edwards ultimately controls the agency. But O’Neill said that politicians rarely have enough time or expertise to delve into the particulars of a child welfare case, which is why most states have invested in a dedicated public servant for that role.
In some cases, those with complaints about DCFS are directed to Louisiana’s Office of Inspector General, but OIG is a law enforcement agency, rather than an oversight entity.
The Louisiana Legislative Auditor and Casey Family Programs have also audited DCFS’ shortcomings. But those reviews have looked broadly at staffing and funding problems, rather than ground-level decision-making.
That's a feature of ombudsmen in other states. In Massachusetts, for example, the Office of the Child Advocate has released two 100-plus-page investigations in the past two years about one child’s death and another’s disappearance.
Not everyone is a believer in the power of an ombudsman. Dixon, who often represents children in states that have ombudsman offices, said they are often toothless and unable to bring litigation against the systems they oversee.
That means that they cannot produce a ruling from a federal judge to clean up an agency, which is generally the action that forces sweeping reform, he said.
“They don’t ever really force a state to change,” Dixon said. “It’s good to have somebody looking overall at things and reporting on it. But you just reporting on it is not going to make it change.”
Who does confidentiality protect?
Louisiana’s confidentiality laws concerning the release of information about children who have died from abuse or neglect are also far more restrictive than most other states. The state last updated those laws in 2005, claiming then that they were making them more transparent.
Unlike when adults die in state custody and the agencies involved generally must release some details about their deaths, DCFS does not have to announce when a child dies in state custody. While the names and causes of death of children may be available through coroner and law enforcement records, the circumstances surrounding their interactions with DCFS are generally sealed from public view.
Other states are more forthcoming.
Both Arkansas and Florida publish far more detailed information about fatalities and near-fatalities of children.
Arkansas maintains lists that include the child’s name, age, whether the child had any history with the state agency, their cause of death and their relationship with whomever was alleged to have killed them. Florida explains how many families with fatalities had prior involvement with their agency and how many of those families had verified reports against them within the past year.
In California, the state released hundreds of pages this year about 8-year-old Sophia Mason, who died after her teacher, physician and relatives all reported concerns that she was being abused at home. Carly Sanchez, a California attorney who represents Mason’s grandmother, said too much confidentiality ends up hurting children, rather than helping them.
“We agree minors should be protected,” Sanchez said. “But at some point, if the rights are harming the children — by not allowing the public to know what’s happening in the child welfare system, by not allowing children to bring lawsuits when they have civil rights violations — we need to re-evaluate the laws. Are they doing what they’re intended to do?”
Dixon questioned who secrecy helps once a child has died.
“Many times adults mention, this has to be confidential,” he said. “And it’s to protect themselves.”