- Associated Press - Friday, January 29, 2016

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Louisiana’s social services agency needs a complete overhaul to adequately protect the state’s children, according to a committee tapped by Gov. John Bel Edwards to make recommendations about the Department of Children and Family Services.

The 22-member panel released its report late Thursday, blasting a 2010 department reorganization by former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration, combined with years of budget cuts. It said the decisions were “driven by a philosophy of downsizing” rather than a focus on the agency’s mission of protecting children and families.

“Increasing emphasis has been placed on numbers and false metrics rather than the well-being and safety of children and the quality of the care they receive,” the report says. “Funding and staffing crises have resulted, leaving the department gutted and ineffective.”

The Department of Children and Family Services oversees child welfare, the foster parent program, food stamps, the state’s welfare program and child support enforcement. Its budget was cut from more than $1.2 billion when Jindal took office in 2008 to $717 million this year.

The review committee said more coordination was needed across state agencies on children’s issues, with more money dedicated to the effort. It suggested new partnerships with outside organizations and universities and reversal of much of the reorganization.

Committee members also recommended increasing employees at the department, saying experienced workers had been driven out by the Jindal administration. The report said the agency has “been severely understaffed” and too heavily reduced its child welfare caseworkers, whose numbers fell from 1,008 in 2009 to 816 four years later.

“This has resulted in cascading difficulties,” the report says.

Budget documents show the number of employees at the department has dropped by about 1,800 during Jindal’s tenure in office. Edwards’ review committee said the workers handling child welfare cases have caseloads that exceed national and state standards, increasing employee turnover and risking child safety.

Edwards named a new department secretary Friday and suggested he’d consider changes to the agency.

“I understand the work that must be done to ensure that the Department of Children and Family Services fulfills its promise to the people of Louisiana,” Edwards said in a statement. “I also understand that our children and families often interact with multiple departments in our state government and would greatly benefit from a team-based approach.”

The advisory committee included department employees, judges, education officials and representatives of charitable and religious organizations.

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Online:

The report is available online at: https://1.usa.gov/1VvQe3p

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