Louisiana official begs for more workers to help children

By David Jacobs | The Center Square

Louisiana’s head of family services on Tuesday literally begged a state committee for $2.2 million to hire 50 new workers.

Marketa Garner Walters, secretary of the state Department of Children and Family Services, said she thought it would be an “easy ask” before the COVID-19 pandemic and response sapped state resources.

“I know you’re thinking, ‘She must be crazy if she thinks we’re going to be adding people during the midst of a budget crisis,’” Walters said. “We are desperately short with the human beings we need to do the work of taking care of children, and child abuse investigations, and in foster care and adoption.”

The jobs cannot be automated, Walters noted. She said her department is understaffed by 1,500, and she’s hoping the legislature will allow her to slowly build up her numbers, though getting the full amount is unlikely.

Staff retention is difficult, she added. The work can be dangerous, and the pay is low.

“You can make more money stocking products on shelves than you can with a master’s degree in child welfare,” Walters said. When entering a home where child abuse is suspected, “You don’t know what’s behind that door.”

Walters said child abuse reports have dropped by almost half during the COVID-19 pandemic, but she didn’t suggest abuse has declined. Teachers, doctors and law enforcement, in that order, are the professions that report child abuse most frequently, and children who are not going to school or to medical checkups are less likely to come into contact with someone who might suspect mistreatment.

“We’re going to do what we can to try to help out,” said Rep. Jerome Zeringue, the Houma Republican who chairs the House Appropriations Committee.

The committee held its first meeting of the special session Tuesday. Lawmakers have the rest of the month to approve the spending bills they didn’t pass during the regular session before the state’s next fiscal year begins July 1.