El Dorado News-Times
If we want kids protected, we need agencies capable of doing the work
Too late for a few children who have died tragically, Louisiana government is stumbling toward a long-term fix for two of Gov. John Bel Edwards’ biggest failures in office: child welfare and juvenile justice.
The Department of Children and Family Services failed in cases chronicled in this newspaper, in which young children got sick on momma’s drug stash, and the agency did not respond effectively in time.
The virtual collapse of the juvenile justice system in a series of riots and near-riots in state facilities, from Bridge City in the south to the Monroe area in the north, is another major crisis.
Unquestionably, the pandemic negatively impacted already stressed families throughout the state, and the nation. But sheer bureaucratic inertia, despite warnings from DCFS leadership in particular, failed to result in the kind of meaningful staffing increases that might have helped in the case of abused children.
Edwards’ new budget proposal plans an increase of about 70 positions in the table of organization of the department. While that might sound like a bureaucratic move, the truth is that these kinds of problems can’t be addressed by new websites or other top-down responses typical of large organizations these days. They require actual, hands-on staff, doing some very hard work.
And that should make DCFS staffing one of the priorities when the Legislature goes over the budget this April.
The governor’s chief budget officer is Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne. He told the Press Club of Baton Rouge this week that Edwards is committed to hiring more people in DCFS and the Office of Juvenile Justice. Civil Service, which oversees pay schedules, has worked closely with the Division of Administration to make the jobs more attractive, he said.
Dardenne said that there’s been a good response to hiring fairs launched by DCFS, and that he wishes they’d happened sooner.
That’s not entirely fair to the department’s leadership, as it could hardly have held such events during pandemic lockdowns, and cries about staffing echoed in State Capitol halls long before the latest tragedies caught the attention of the public.
Still, Dardenne sounded a note of caution: “Our challenge has been to find people to take these difficult jobs and stay in them when they do take them.”
He’s exactly correct about the difficulties, whether it’s responding late at night to a crisis situation involving a toddler or teaching young people sent into state custody that they’ve got to clean up their approaches to life if they want to get out of juvie.
“The proof of the pudding will be if these new employees stay on the job,” Dardenne said.
That’s why we hope the Legislature, recognizing the expense, looks in detail into the tables of organization for these challenged agencies. Hiring people is costly but no other response makes sense, certainly not neglect of the staffing requirements that should be based on national norms. And this year, unlike in the relatively recent past, there’s money in the coffers to do it.
In too many cases the pandemic shattered family structures, and the repercussions will be with us for a long time. It has been, like shale rock loosened by fracking, a dramatic rupture at the foundations of society.
Ultimately, more effective government remains elusive but vital in responding — whether through DCFS or police work, along with nonprofit organizations and faith communities — to what threatens our state’s most vulnerable residents, our young people.