MANSURA — Christian Batiste’s seven short weeks of life were a constant struggle. He didn’t get enough to eat. He had trouble staying warm.
After he was born premature and exposed to drugs, workers from the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services were supposed to check on his family weekly in Avoyelles Parish. They knew Christian's parents well: Caseworkers had validated a case of sexual abuse against his father in 2018, and his mother had given birth to three substance-exposed newborns since 2011.
But everyone with the responsibility of watching Christian failed to notice he was starving. He grew limp and quiet on a chilly day in January 2019 and then died. Pathologists attributed it to starvation and dehydration.
Christian’s parents served time in prison over his death, and an Avoyelles Parish grand jury explored charges against caseworkers but ultimately did not indict. But it’s unclear if the main caseworker, who remains employed at the agency, faced any other disciplinary actions. Leaders said only that they perform “a thorough review of every case in which a child died and make changes as needed.”
The state agency is sunk in crisis, with hundreds of staffing vacancies, workers still leaving and overwhelming caseloads. At least three neglected children have died this year on its watch, and its top two leaders resigned last month.
Christian's case points to yet another problem at the agency: lack of accountability for employees who make grave missteps. Some state legislators say the department needs to clean house when employees make deadly mistakes, and one has suggested crafting new criminal penalties for employees who are negligent.
Dr. L.J. Mayeux, who was Avoyelles Parish coroner when Christian died, said he’s determined to hold someone at the state agency responsible for the death.
“I spent 39 years as coroner,” said Mayeux, 71. “This is one case that I will see to completion before I pass on to my next phase of life. This could have been prevented. And had it not been for the cases in Baton Rouge, this case would have not come to light at all.”
The Department of Children and Family Services didn’t elaborate on the particulars of Christian's case in a recent statement. Instead, a spokesperson touted recent agency reforms, such as an ongoing probe of the department’s structure, staffing and policies, and said each child’s death has triggered internal reviews.
“We also look carefully at the role of the supervisory staff in the decision-making process and where there may have been any miscommunication or misinterpretation of our practice model,” the statement said. “This is part of our regular and ongoing work to continually improve our agency’s responsiveness to the needs of the children and families we serve.”
‘The agency is responsible for this child death’
Christian's family — like those of many children who have been killed this year — had long been on the child welfare agency's radar. By the time he was born, the agency had validated at least four complaints against his family, according to records provided to The Advocate | The Times-Picayune.
Those included substance abuse cases against his mother, Jacqueline Batiste, after her children were born drug-exposed, and a sexual abuse case against his father, Jamie Francisco.
Months before Christian died, Francisco was arrested on counts of indecent behavior with juveniles and third-degree rape, according to court records.
But on Jan. 2, 2019, Batiste’s mother told a caseworker that her daughter and Francisco were living in a home without utilities or running water. Their newborn was there with them, along with other children.
“She reports her daughter is unfit to raise those children and they need to be taken from her,” said a child welfare case report. Such reports are generally confidential, but several of them are included in the file for Francisco’s criminal case, which is public. Francisco, who could not be reached for this story, used the reports to argue he was not at fault in his child’s death.
The day after the grandmother’s warning to the state agency, a caseworker went by the home in Marksville where the family was living without utilities.
She wrote that she found Batiste lying on a mattress in the living room with the baby beside her. The worker told them they needed to leave and warned that Batiste could have smothered her baby based on their positioning. The worker said she offered to drive the family back to Batiste’s home in Mansura, but after they declined, she said they needed to be there by 4 p.m.
“Worker advised that they needed to make better decisions, as the whole situation at that house was unsafe,” her report says.
After that initial visit, the agency assigned the case to Davia Speed Berry, who worked in the agency’s Family Services Division. Workers in that division are supposed to monitor children who are at risk of abuse or neglect but who remain in their homes instead of being moved to foster care.
Family Services also helps parents get treatment for substance abuse and other problems in hopes that they can get better and keep custody of their children.
Berry said in a later case file that she was assigned the case Jan. 9 and visited the family Jan. 11 and again Jan. 25.
When another caseworker later interviewed Berry about her experiences, Berry said she’d worked with the family before on a 2016 substance abuse case. She described a visit on Jan. 25, 2019, saying Batiste’s home was “cool on the inside” and that she saw dirty dishes, a trash bag and a skillet with old food. Berry said she saw a space heater, but she did not check whether heat was running from a central unit.
Berry “never asked (Batiste) to unwrap the baby,” the worker who interviewed her wrote.
Two days after Berry said she made her final visit, the baby died. His mom said that in his few short weeks alive, Christian was lively and boisterous, cried when he was hungry and didn’t like to be touched when he was sleeping.
In another case report logged shortly after the child’s death, Mayeux was unequivocal in his assessment of the case: Had a caseworker paid closer attention, the baby would not have died, he said.
“He said that the agency is responsible for this child death,” the case report reads.
Stacey McPherson, a former caseworker who investigated the family in another 2017 sexual abuse allegation that the agency later invalidated, echoed that sentiment. She said the department should have known the baby was at high risk. McPherson has become an outspoken advocate for reform at the agency and has testified before the Legislature about its problems.
“There was history with them,” McPherson said. “There was history with drug use; there was history with sexual abuse. And then you have another drug-affected baby that ends up dead. Those are the things I just don’t understand — how many chances do they get?”
Batiste pleaded guilty to negligent homicide in her son’s death in 2020 and was released from prison after serving just over a year. Francisco was also released from prison after being sentenced to up to five years for juvenile cruelty.
In a recent interview, Batiste said she blames the boy’s father and state caseworkers for his death, adding that her faith has helped her to make peace with the situation. As for the caseworkers involved in her case, she said: “You reap what you sow.”
Records show that Berry remains employed by the agency, and she holds the top civil service rank for child welfare specialists at the agency.
Avoyelles Parish District Attorney Charles Riddle said his office convened a grand jury to determine whether any caseworkers should be charged in Christian's death. He said the grand jury returned a “no true bill,” declining to indict anyone from the agency.
Riddle said the case was complicated: While Christian was malnourished, the baby’s parents did not seek medical attention for him. He said he didn’t believe caseworkers’ actions rose to the level of criminal negligence.
“A child died, so I can’t say they did the right thing,” Riddle said. “But I can’t say they were negligent.”
The case has now piqued the interest of Louisiana’s inspector general, Stephen Street, according to two sources close to the investigation. Street, who declined to comment for this story, opened a probe into the agency this summer after a Baton Rouge toddler overdosed on fentanyl and died despite multiple earlier warnings to the agency.
Lawmakers consider criminal penalties for DCFS negligence
Agency Secretary Marketa Garner Walters and her top deputy over child welfare, Rhenda Hodnett, have both stepped down amid a crisis that has sent caseworkers from the depleted agency fleeing, even as reports of abuse and neglect keep rising.
The department has more than 400 job vacancies, and the agency’s budget has never been replenished after it was halved a decade ago.
State lawmakers say caseworkers and supervisors who have made deadly mistakes need to suffer some consequences. Despite the difficulty in filling positions, they say the agency needs to work harder to find quality candidates.
“We need to be serious about holding you accountable; we need to be serious about holding ourselves accountable,” said state Sen. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe, during a recent legislative hearing about the child welfare agency.
In a statement, agency officials said problem employees are subject to “discipline up to and including termination.”
“All cases are handled on a case-by-case basis,” the statement said. “What is often lost is the simple truth that caseworkers make the best judgments they can, given the facts they have at the time.”
Still, state Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, said she wants to explore the possibility of criminal penalties specifically designed for caseworkers whose negligence leads to a child’s abuse or death.
Although Barrow said she believes the vast majority of caseworkers are good-hearted people who want to help children, she said the threat of criminal action could serve as a warning to those who are no longer putting forth the necessary effort. She said she needs to do more research, but she may pursue new laws around negligence come the next regular session in April.
“At the end of the day, if we keep allowing what has been, we will keep getting what we’ve always gotten,” Barrow said.