Audit reveals disturbing problems in LA child welfare services - KTBS.com - Shreveport, LA News, Weather and Sports

Audit reveals disturbing problems in LA child welfare services

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LOUISIANA (KTBS) - April is National Child Abuse Prevention month. And just this month, the Louisiana State Auditor released a performance audit showing some disturbing problems in our state's child welfare system. "The system is very broken. The foster care system is scary. It's reactive, there's no proactiveness in it whatsoever," Kelli Todd of the Volunteers for Youth Justice (VYJ) told us. The audit of the Department of Children and Family Services reveals some cases were improperly referred to the wrong programs, not all cases were dealt with in a timely manner, and that the caseworkers dealing with children and their families on a daily basis - have too much on their plate.

And when the people affected by these issues are victims of neglect, physical and sexual abuse, and substance abuse - our state has a real problem on its hands. "Their work days, I've seen some of them start at 7 am and go home at 11. It's not an 8-5 job." Todd is talking about the job of a caseworker under the Department of Children and Family Services, or DCFS.

Todd says, "It's easy to sit back and point fingers when a kid is not getting services, but to live the life of a caseworker, I don't think I could do it…They get up they go to work, on the way to work they probably get three calls from foster parents probably needing something, so they got to stop and go deal with that, while at the same they're supposed to be at a court hearing to testify or to provide a report of how this child is doing. And while they're sitting in court they get a call from their supervisor saying ‘hey, we just removed three more children - it's your case, it's your turn,’ so you need to go pick them up and find placements. It's very hard." Some of VYJ's volunteers are CASAs - or court appointed special advocates. When a child has been removed from their home because of abuse, CASAs work with DCFS caseworkers and help advocate for the children in court. So Todd says she can attest to the issues highlighted in the recent audit - which focuses on the work caseworkers are responsible for.

Nicole Edmonson, Director of Performance Audit Services with Louisiana's Legislative Auditor says, "the numbers we showed in the report - the percentages are small, but the numbers when you're talking about children's lives, are very high." The audit found over 2,600 - or 2.8% - of victims and perpetrators were improperly referred to Alternative Response (AR)- which is a program meant for lower risk cases. So some high risk cases didn't get the interventions needed.

Perhaps even more troublesome - is the time it took caseworkers to respond to certain cases. While their response time has gotten better over the years - the report shows it took caseworkers over 60 days to respond to nearly two thousand cases. When a child is being sexually or physically abused - time is of the essence. Todd explains, "when a child finally does cry for help, sometimes they're so scared, just to build up the courage to ask for help. If you respond quickly, the child has that trust there, somebody really is there to help me, but if you let it linger, the child is not going to want to tell the story anymore, cause look I've told it, I've told it and I've told it, and I'm still here. Nothing's being done. So time is very crucial."

A significant part of the audit - and perhaps the most telling - is not the straight numbers, but the reasons behind them. That's why Edmonson of the auditor's office said they surveyed the caseworkers themselves. Edmonson says, "the response rate for the caseworkers was over 50%. And when you ever send out a survey - that's a pretty high response rate, so I think the caseworkers wanted to be heard."

This is what was revealed from those surveys - 75% of caseworkers said they didn't have sufficient time to provide quality services because of their caseload. Statewide, the number of caseworkers has decreased by 19% from 2009 to 2013 - yet annual caseloads have increased by 18.1%. Edmonson said, "right now their caseload is about 163 and national best practice is about 144."

Here's how the numbers stack up in the Shreveport region:
- The annual child welfare caseworker headcount is down 42 people from 2009. Yet, the caseload has increased steadily over the years.
- Even more shocking - is the turnover rate locally - which has increased to 40% from just 15%. When caseworkers leave, that can greatly impact the families they were helping.

Todd brought this to life, saying, "it's hard to stay somewhere where you're not feeling like you're doing what you need to do in the best interest of the family and the children. I think a lot of the turnover is caused by, you get there and you have these good intentions, hey I'm going to make a difference, I want to work with this family and this child, and then you end up getting so many cases, such a caseload that you can't handle it, and you get to the point where you're like I'm not doing any good here, I've got to do something else."

So why is this happening? Does it all come down to money? Edmonson says everyone has been forced to do more with less, and there are always things agencies can do to improve productivity. But, "there are probably instances out there in state government, and this may very well be one of them, where doing more with less is no longer possible and maybe they need to look at changing their budgeting practices a little bit."

Over the past ten years - the funding to DCFS has decreased by 10.7% to $784 million - most significantly since Governor Jindal took office. Specific payments for all child welfare services decreased from $86.6 million in 2009 to $63.5 million last fiscal year, a 26.7 % drop, according to the audit.

 If 2009 budget of $86.6 million were adjusted to keep pace with inflation, the same exact budget from 2009 would now be $95.3 million in 2014. To keep pace with inflation, it would have gone up by $9 million. Instead, it went down $13 million. Between $3.6 and $6.2 million decrease was explained by Jindal's FY 2013 budget this way "The Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) continues to streamline its services by consolidating offices around the state, resulting in reduced leases, at a savings of $3.6 million through FY 2013. These consolidations are possible as a result of the launch of a customer service center this past year, as well as the partnership with more than 450 community partners statewide, providing clients with greater access to information and services. Since the launch of the call center in July, more than 5 million calls have been received, with an average of 866,000 calls per month. As a result of these types of department-wide efficiencies, DCFS will reduce 122 vacant positions, at a savings of $6.2 million."

These figure do NOT include 11 million Medicaid payments made by Magellan. Magellan has changed the health care landscape in our state recently- providing some child welfare services as well. Magellan is part of the state's efforts to privatize more state government services and cut costs. But when we asked Todd about how it’s affected services locally, “what we've noticed is since Magellan has stepped in, a lot of the good providers we had that saw our children, they stepped out, because I guess Magellan doesn't properly pay them the amount they need to properly service these children."

For each finding, the Louisiana Legislative Auditor gave recommendations to DCFS. DCFS agreed with some, and disagreed with others.  It pointed out several positive changes that have been made over the past few years, and are in the process of being made, including the following: -all cases, regardless of risk level, will be assessed using the same safety and risk assessment instruments and protocols -staff retention efforts, enhanced training and regular performance reviews should speed up caseworker's response times.  As far as funding goes, the audit recommended that if DCFS determines it doesn't have sufficient staff to handle the caseload, it should request more staff from the legislature through the budget process. DCFS did not agree with this recommendation, saying it doesn't have the flexibility once the budget has been adopted to add additional staff.

The most recent Federal review of Louisiana's Children's Welfare Services found Louisiana lacking. It was conducted between 2008 and 2010 and can be seen here. It's not clear how long DCFS had been involved in those cases and in what capacity. Assessing the state's response in such cases is made difficult by a statute - intended to protect victims and family members - that shields case records from disclosure even after an abused child has died.

How can I report child abuse or neglect?
Call 1-855-4LA-KIDS (1-855-452-5437) toll free 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The statistics on the performance of the call center are positive with a high percentage of calls answered quickly by well-trained, well-supervised staff.

 How can I tell if what I'm seeing is Discipline or Abuse?
The point of disciplining children is to teach them right from wrong, not to make them live in fear.
Physical abuse vs. Discipline In physical abuse, unlike physical forms of discipline, the following elements are present:
§ Unpredictability. The child never knows what is going to set the parent off. There are no clear boundaries or rules. The child is constantly walking on eggshells, never sure what behavior will trigger a physical assault.
§ Lashing out in anger. Physically abusive parents act out of anger and the desire to assert control, not the motivation to lovingly teach the child. The angrier the parent, the more intense the abuse. § Using fear to control behavior. Parents who are physically abusive may believe that their children need to fear them in order to behave, so they use physical abuse to "keep their child in line." However, what children are really learning is how to avoid being hit, not how to behave or grow as individuals. Warning signs of emotional abuse in children
§ Excessively withdrawn, fearful, or anxious about doing something wrong.
§ Shows extremes in behavior (extremely compliant or extremely demanding; extremely passive or extremely aggressive). § Doesn't seem to be attached to the parent or caregiver.
§ Acts either inappropriately adult (taking care of other children) or inappropriately infantile (rocking, thumb-sucking, throwing tantrums).

Warning signs of physical abuse in children:

§ Frequent injuries or unexplained bruises, welts, or cuts.
§ Is always watchful and "on alert," as if waiting for something bad to happen.
§ Injuries appear to have a pattern such as marks from a hand or belt.
§ Shies away from touch, flinches at sudden movements, or seems afraid to go home.
§ Wears inappropriate clothing to cover up injuries, such as long-sleeved shirts on hot days. Warning signs of neglect in children
§ Clothes are ill-fitting, filthy, or inappropriate for the weather.
§ Hygiene is consistently bad (unbathed, matted and unwashed hair, noticeable body odor).
§ Untreated illnesses and physical injuries.
§ Is frequently unsupervised or left alone or allowed to play in unsafe situations and environments.
§ Is frequently late or missing from school. Warning signs of sexual abuse in children
§ Trouble walking or sitting.
§ Displays knowledge or interest in sexual acts inappropriate to his or her age, or even seductive behavior.
§ Makes strong efforts to avoid a specific person, without an obvious reason.
§ Doesn't want to change clothes in front of others or participate in physical activities.
§ An STD or pregnancy, especially under the age of 14.
§ Runs away from home. Reporting child abuse and neglect If you suspect a child is being abused, it's critical to get them the help he or she needs. Reporting child abuse seems so official. Many people are reluctant to get involved in other families' lives. Understanding some of the myths behind reporting may help put your mind at ease if you need to report child abuse.

What if I break up someone's home?
The priority in child protective services is keeping children in the home. A child abuse report does not mean a child is automatically removed from the home - unless the child is clearly in danger. Support such as parenting classes, anger management or other resources may be offered first to parents if safe for the child.

 Reporting is anonymous. You do not have to give your name when you report child abuse. The child abuser cannot find out who made the report of child abuse. If you have a gut feeling that something is wrong, it is better to be safe than sorry. Even if you don't see the whole picture, others may have noticed as well, and a pattern can help identify child abuse that might have otherwise slipped through the cracks.
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