When children in Louisiana are abused or neglected, or families face economic instability, the state agency charged with helping them is the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). But as tax cuts and sluggish economic growth have taken their toll on the state budget, no state agency has been more affected by cuts than DCFS. While the agency gets the majority of its funding from the federal government, state budget cuts have hurt the agency’s ability to provide for foster children and investigate allegations of abuse and neglect.
A history of cuts
Gov. John Bel Edwards’ executive budget proposal for the 2017-18 fiscal year included $179.7 million in state general funds for the department. That’s a 9.4 percent increase from current-year levels, but would still have left the agency with 35 percent less state funding than in 2008, after accounting for inflation and mid-year cuts. The new funding in the governor’s budget was designed to pay state’s share of a much-needed upgrade in the agency’s benefits eligibility system ($14.4 million) and another system ($2.4 million) that would allow the agency to track child welfare data more easily.
The House Appropriations Committee stripped that funding, and instead proposed a funding level for the department of $160.2 million, $19.5 million below the governor’s proposal and a 2.4 percent overall reduction for the agency from the previous year.
The money the House cut from the bill was supposed to be matched by an estimated $50.3 million reduction in federal funding, meaning the full cut to the agency is around $70 million.
DCFS struggles to fulfill mission
The department consists of the Division of Management and Finance, the Division of Child Welfare, and the Division of Family Support. Altogether DCFS has 3,447 full-time employees, many of whom are caseworkers handling child protective services cases or determining eligibility for the state’s safety net programs. Due to budget cuts and pay freezes, however, the caseloads within the child welfare division have risen to dangerous levels. An independent review of the system in 2016 found the following:
“…in the past two years it has become evident that because of high staff turnover and high caseloads, budget pressures and the resultant effects on the front-line environment, performance has faltered in some areas. Sustainability is at risk and initiatives to improve child and family outcomes are struggling to produce intended change. It is difficult to see how the Department can achieve the standards set by itself and the federal Children’s Bureau unless additional resources are made available.”
A review by the Legislative Auditor in 2016 found that the agency continually struggles to manage the federal safety net programs it oversees. Several of the violations put the state at risk of federal penalties.
The agency also is charged with collecting child support – a job which, if done right, can make families more self-sufficient and less reliant on safety-net programs. In FY 2016, the agency had 282 caseworkers who worked with families to establish paternity, set up child support orders, and ensure that noncustodial parents make timely child support payments. They collected more than $417 million in child support payments, but the agency estimates that an additional $1.7 billion is owed to Louisiana children by parents who are in arrears. In FY 2016, each child support enforcement caseworker handled an average of 1,027 cases, up from 860 cases per worker in FY 2013.
The department’s staffing has been reduced by more than 2,500 since 2008 – and many of those who are left have gone years without a pay raise. The average annual salary at the department is $44,349. That’s up slightly from $42,328 in FY 2008, but it amounts to a $5,317 pay cut after adjusting for inflation. Not surprisingly, turnover rates within the department are as high as 23 percent per year in some program areas including child protection and foster care services.
State must invest to protect vulnerable children
Due to the $440 million budget gap in the upcoming fiscal year, the budget does not include funding to hire 187 new that the agency needs to fulfill its mission. The money for the caseworkers is included on a list of funding priorities in case state tax collections tick up or if the Legislature raises new recurring revenue.