Employees at Louisiana’s Department of Children and Family Services are overworked, underpaid and have to deal with unresponsive and unqualified supervisors, they said in an in-depth investigation Monday.
The employee outlook survey, conducted by the state’s legislative auditor at the request of lawmakers after three children died while on DCFS watch, suggests the agency has burdened workers with a workload excessive, which prevents them from properly supervising every child they encounter.
The auditor’s investigation, conducted in October, does not address DCFS’s handling of the three recent deaths, each of which occurred after warnings to the agency about child safety. It also does not refer to a 2019 case that came to public attention on Sunday, in which a baby died of starvation just days after a DCFS staff member visited him, as well as his family.
The findings are consistent with testimony from current and former DCFS employees, who have long complained about agency workloads and morale.
“They keep pushing more work on us to look like they’re doing ‘something’, but none of these new policies actually address the issue that leadership had a knee-jerk reaction to,” one respondent said. The names and positions of respondents are not included in the report. “People leave DCFS because leadership constantly makes our job harder to do without ever listening to us.”
A DCFS spokesperson said the agency aims to boost morale through the creation of a diversity, equity and inclusion council, which – among other goals – will detect biases in management. DCFS has also committed to funding more training for agency supervisors.
State lawmakers have urged the auditor to poll agency workers as outcry grew this fall following the death of 2-year-old Ezekiel Harry in Houma from blunt trauma and Mitchell Robinson , 2, and Jahrei Paul, 20 months, died in Baton Rouge of fentanyl overdoses.
The agency was supposed to watch the three toddlers; he was also believed to have watched over seven-week-old Christian Batiste, who died of starvation in the parish of Avoyelles three years ago.
After Paul died on Halloween, Marketa Garner Walters, then secretary of DCFS, tendered his resignation. Her deputy child protection officer, Rhenda Hodnett, announced a week later that she would be retiring at the end of the year. Acting Secretary Terri Porche Ricks took over from Walters in November.
The survey released Monday was sent to more than 1,400 DCFS employees across six departments involved in child protection. Of this group, 816 employees responded.
When asked if workloads allow enough time to provide adequate services, less than a third of respondents – 29% – agreed, although they said the job never been so difficult.
“The sad reality about DCFS is that this work has only gotten more complicated over the years, and with the increasing complexity of these cases, there have been many unrealistic expectations of workers and supervisors,” said one respondent.
Fewer than one in five employees of 45 respondents in Baton Rouge — 17% — said they had the time they needed to do their job properly. In New Orleans, it was 20%. Employees in the Lake Charles office gave the highest ratings, with 44% saying they had enough time.
At the same time, more than half – 58% – of DCFS employees surveyed said they were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with their pay. The agency increased entry salaries for child protection interns this fall, raising the salary from nearly $10,000 to nearly $40,000. It also added wage incentives of up to an additional $5 an hour in Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
Several employees described a work environment where having more experience doesn’t always lead to raises or promotions, which one employee with a master’s degree called a “slap in the face.”
“Good workers who provide quality services are often locked into their jobs and blocked from transfers or promotions because management doesn’t want to lose a good worker in the field,” said one respondent.
Auditors noted that some workers are concerned about the DCFS decision in September to relax the requirement that job applicants must have a college degree, which allowed applicants to apply as long as they have six years of work experience in any field. Agency executives say they hope the pilot change will help them fill about 400 vacancies.
One respondent called the decision “an awful decision for child protection”. Others said new hires without prior experience in the field do not receive adequate training.
New recruits must complete a six-month training program, DCFS spokeswoman Catherine Heitman said. They must also complete at least 32 hours of training in each of the next two years and 20 hours in each subsequent year, Heitman said.
DCFS is also launching a recruiting campaign that includes more contact with universities and social media. The agency has hosted job fairs in Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Lafayette, with plans to hold similar events in each of the six state regions where DCFS operates. DCFS leaders made at least 300 conditional job offers after job fairs and plan to finalize those hires in the coming weeks, they said last week.