- Associated Press - Sunday, December 11, 2016

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Louisiana’s social services department was the poster child of “do more with less” during former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s era, its budget slashed in half over eight years. Now, it’s becoming a cautionary tale about how deeply budget cuts have impacted state services.

Child welfare workers are so overloaded they can’t be kept on staff. Cars are so old they stall when trying to bring foster children to doctor’s appointments and when removing a child from parents accused of abuse or neglect. Foster parents are paid less per day to care for a child than the cost of boarding a dog when someone goes on vacation.

Those are the stories told to lawmakers last week by Marketa Garner Walters, the secretary of the Department of Children and Family Services, or DCFS, as she explained why she’s requesting increases in spending and staff for her agency.

“We simply do not have the capacity to serve the clients we have, and unfortunately in DCFS, the clients are people in need,” Walters told the House Appropriations Committee, which is combing through budget requests for next year. “The agency has been grossly underfunded for eight years.”

Her stories are more extreme than most department leaders, but her ability to get more dollars as Louisiana grapples with continued financial problems is just as much of a long-shot.

Lawmakers on the committee were sympathetic as Walters outlined the difficulties, but they didn’t leave her with much hope, suggesting Louisiana can’t afford increased spending.

“Obviously, we know you’re severely handicapped. We know that,” said Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington. But he added about the budget: “At the end of the day, I think this might be one of the worst years we’ve had in the 10 I’ve been here.”

While spending on the state’s health department has continued to grow in recent years, the budgets for many other agencies have been repeatedly reduced in response to repeated financial shortfalls that have hit state government since 2008.

The Department of Children and Family Services has been the hardest hit, used as a sort of test case by the Jindal administration in the Republican governor’s efforts to reorganize agencies and reduce the size and scope of state government.

The department - which oversees child welfare, the foster parent program, food stamps, the state’s welfare program and child support enforcement - had a more than $1.2 billion budget with 5,200 jobs. When Jindal left office, spending on the agency was down to $626 million and fewer than 3,500 employees.

Lawmakers and Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration boosted the budget this year, to about $712 million.

Walters said that’s woefully short of what she needs to fulfill the agency mission of protecting children and families, and she’s asked for a $99 million increase in the budget year that begins July 1, 2017, along with 414 more workers.

It’s a wish list Walters knows won’t be funded, in a state still grappling with budget gaps and struggling to dig out of cycles of financial instability. But she said it’s her job to advocate for the people her agency serves.

She started her budget presentation describing a single June week in Baton Rouge for her department, which included a probe when an infant died after being left in a car in the heat, nine children removed from homes and placed in foster care, investigations into babies born exposed to illegal drugs and a child trafficking case.

Walters’ chief concern was her agency’s child welfare work, reviewing child abuse and neglect cases and overseeing children in foster care. She said the workers handling child welfare cases have caseloads that exceed national and state standards, increasing employee turnover and risking child safety. She described teenagers “aging out of the system at 18 who walk down the street to the homeless shelter.”

Speaking to lawmakers who have heard troubling budget cut stories for years, Walters was direct and blunt: “I recognize you may not fund what I need. But you need to hear what I need.”

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at https://twitter.com/melindadeslatte


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