Auditor questions state child protection services

The state agency charged with protecting children from abuse has neglected its own policies in thousands of cases, according to a new audit, heightening concerns among child welfare advocates who fear the Department of Children and Family Services has been stretched too thin to fulfill its function.

The audit, released Monday by the Legislative Auditor’s Office, offered a rare window into a tight-lipped agency that has suffered a series of budget cuts in recent years and has been the target of frequent criticism in the wake of high-profile child deaths.

High turnover, thinner staffing and heavier caseloads are among the most pressing challenges DCFS faces, according to the audit, which found that department officials have not always assessed household risk factors consistently and have improperly referred more than 2,600 cases to a lower level of care “when an abuse investigation should have been opened.”

“Overall, we found that DCFS did not always conduct its child welfare activities in accordance with its policies and other requirements,” stated the report, signed by Louisiana Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera.

While the department has lowered its average response time significantly since 2009, the report said, caseworkers took more than two months to make an initial contact in 1,195 of 88,956 cases during that period. More than 100 of those 1,195 cases involved sexual abuse, and three of them involved deaths.

In one instance, officials needed 117 days to respond to a case of a father who sexually molested his son after previously being accused of raping his daughter. The department attributed the sluggish response to a failure to reassign the case after a worker resigned.

“This should scare everybody,” said Joy Bruce, executive director of CASA New Orleans, an advocacy group for abused children, adding that the audit’s findings were not surprising given the level of resources the state allocates to child protection services.

“People shouldn’t be calling for somebody’s head,” she said. “They should be calling for a sea change in how we prioritize children.”

DCFS should consider requesting additional staff, the auditors said, to offset burgeoning caseloads that many workers said prevent them from providing quality services to families.

The number of caseworkers — employees who decide whether to remove children from households and legally pursue the parents or caretakers — dropped by 19 percent between 2009 and 2013, even as caseloads jumped by 18 percent. Payments for all child welfare services decreased from $86.6 million in 2009 to $63.5 million last fiscal year, a 26.7 percent drop, according to the audit.

“We have fewer resources for individuals with greater needs than ever before,” one employee wrote on the auditor’s survey of 868 child welfare caseworkers. “Workers are frustrated because it now becomes about affordability and not about what’s the best for the children.”

Cecile Guin, a professor of research at the LSU School of Social Work, said she finds it “amazing” that DCFS is not yet the subject of a federal consent decree.

“It has a huge amount to do with the loss of resources,” said Guin, who has become increasingly outspoken since the 2012 beating death of Xzayvion Riley, a Baton Rouge boy who had suffered a history of abuse and, according to court records, told state workers months before his death that his father had choked him and shoved his head into a toilet.

“Now there’s plenty of evidence of what the problems are,” Guin said, “and the state can either take it upon itself to get the problems straightened out, or I think somebody else is going to come in and do it for the state.”

DCFS Secretary Suzy Sonnier agreed with most of the auditors’ recommendations to refine case tracking and address turnover rates. She said many improvements already have been made, including increased pay incentives for quality staff members. She noted Louisiana is among just four states that have an accredited child welfare program.

“I welcome the increased scrutiny of our child welfare system prompted by the legislative audit,” said Sonnier, who did not respond to interview requests but issued a prepared statement. “Now the process of moving cases from the initial report to an investigation is streamlined, and all cases receive more scrutiny to determine the safety, risks and needs of the family.”

Amanda Brunson, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse Louisiana, said her organization has seen an increase in DCFS’ attention to data, consistency and ensuring that high-quality services are available for families.

“While some elements of the report are hard to stomach, systems can only get better if we force ourselves to look at what our current problems are and develop research-based solutions,” Brunson said. “The child welfare system is a complex system with a fragile clientele. We must invest the time and money into getting it right. The children of Louisiana deserve no less.”

The audit did not address specific cases but noted that DCFS handled 192 child fatalities during fiscal years 2009 through 2013. Separate data, provided to The Advocate in response to a public-records request, show 27 children whose families had an open case in a DCFS program, including Riley, died between 2009 and 2013. In those cases, the authorities determined that abuse or neglect was a contributing factor in the cause of the child’s death.

Other names on the list include Azari Johnson and Justyce Cheatham, of Baton Rouge, and Zion Harris, of New Orleans, all of whom died last year. New Orleans police have alleged that Harris’ mother, Michelle Harris, kicked and whipped her 23-month-old daughter, lacerating her liver and kidney.

In Baton Rouge, prosecutors charged Cheatham’s mother, Jacqueline Cheatham, and her partner, Tiara Dunmars, with second-degree murder after an autopsy of the 23-month-old boy revealed skull fractures and several signs of continuing abuse, such as older injuries to the baby’s ribs and fractures above his ankles.

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. Details do emerge at times in court proceedings, as in the case of Riley, whose parents also face murder charges.

Prosecutors have said Riley, who was beaten to death in June 2012, told state officials in August 2010 that his father had choked him and shoved his head into a toilet, leaving marks on his neck that caught the attention of teachers.

Two years earlier, in November 2008, the boy told a teacher that his father had put a belt to his mouth and moved it from side to side. DCFS put in place a safety plan to limit the father’s involvement with Riley after the August 2010 incident, and it remained in place until April 2011, according to court records.

“Everybody and their mother knew that child was being beat to death, apparently,” Guin said. “Nobody has held the agency responsible, and nobody has held the governor’s office responsible.”

The legislative audit also found that in a DCFS program for low-risk individuals called Alternative Response, cases were not investigated to determine if the abuse or neglect actually occurred.

Auditors found that 19.3 percent of the 89,795 individuals sent to the Alternative Response program during the five-year period ended up being involved in subsequent referrals, and about 70 percent of those repeat referrals were sent to the more invasive Child Protection Investigation program for higher-risk cases.

The auditor cited as an example the case of a mother who had an extensive history with DCFS, being reported in May 2012 for not providing adequate food and for giving her children marijuana. Both mother and daughter tested positive for the drug, but only the inadequate food allegation was validated. Later, the daughter was sexually abused by the father and again tested positive for drugs, which she claimed were forced on her by her father.

The family was the subject of another neglect case in 2013 when the youngest child, an 8-year-old, was reported for coming to school “stoned.” All of the family’s children tested positive for drugs and were finally placed in foster care.

“Families often have multiple interactions with the child welfare system, and examining recurrence can help DCFS identify trends and challenges that may better inform future decisions,” the audit report said.

Sonnier said the auditors’ recommendations for improving the Alternative Response program have been rendered “obsolete” because that program is being merged with the Child Protection Investigation Program.

“All cases meeting the criteria of child abuse or neglect, regardless of risk level, will be assessed using the same safety and risk assessment instruments and documentation protocols to determine safety, risk and service needs of the family,” she wrote in a response to the audit.

In her statement to The Advocate, Sonnier added that the agency’s “most important priority is keeping kids safe.”