THE INVESTIGATORS: DCFS supervisor resigns, worker suspended following botched handling of child’s overdose death
BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - As a sweeping investigation into the overdose death of two-year-old Mitchell Robinson, III, rages on, Louisiana’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) has admitted a case worker’s sick leave and a supervisor’s oversight may have played a big role. The case worker has since been suspended and their supervisor resigned from DCFS right as leadership with the agency was preparing to fire her. The agency has also reviewed every case managed by those employees.
Agency head , Secretary Marketa Garner Walters admitted Friday, Aug. 19, staff did not follow up on Robinson’s case aggressively enough. In an exclusive interview with WAFB, Walters said the agency owns its part in the toddler’s death.
“We take responsibility for not getting back in time. We take responsibility for not being there,” said Walters.
Walters outlined findings from the agency’s internal investigation Friday, revealing hospital staffers made multiple attempts to warn DCFS about the toddler being exposed to drugs over several months. However, without conclusive evidence of drug exposure case workers did not initially open an investigation.
A doctor later obtained proof the child overdosed after being exposed to opioids. DCFS assigned the case worker to look into Robinson’s case, and attempts were made to contact the boy’s family. However, when that doctor reached out to the agency with those positive drug test results, the worker took sick leave and the case was never handed off to another employee. The case sat idle, and not long after the investigation began Robinson’s life ended. WAFB’s Scottie Hunter pressed the leader on the decision-making involved in the case, asking if there was a procedure in place that would protect children even if the worker they were assigned to was absent for sick-leave or otherwise.
“Yes, the case should have been reassigned by the supervisor. It is the supervisor’s job to know what her workers are facing and what their workload is so the case should have been reassigned so that somebody could go,” said Walters.
When asked if their own procedure was not followed in this case, Walters pointed to staffing shortages and a rising number of cases overloading the current roster of workers.
“They were overloaded in the Baton Rouge office. That’s not an excuse. That’s just what happened. It did not get reassigned, but it should have been,” said Walters.
Lawmakers and members of the public have called for Walters and other top DCFS leaders to resign. Walter’s brushed aside those requests Friday.
“I serve at the pleasure of the governor. And what the governor has charged me to do is to put things in place so that we keep moving and things like this don’t happen. And that’s what we’re focused on,” said Walters.
The agency has already changed certain policies in the aftermath of Robinson’s death. Agency leaders said cases where drug exposure is suspected will be treated with priority going forward.
When pressed on if policy changes are enough to prevent a situation similar to Robinson’s, given that the agency’s previous policy failed to do so, Walters defended the importance of having guidelines in place.
“This work is complicated, and it has multiple facets. We do everything we can every day. Policy is important and policy is the guide for the workers,” said Walters. “We will just continue to educate staff and to stress what’s in policy and to help them understand the critical nature of this policy and all the things that govern our work.”
With trust in the agency waning, Walters says she is taking action which includes bringing on more staff and strengthening partnerships and community response to restore faith.
“I hate that anybody would lose confidence in this agency, because this agency has one of the most critical missions in all of state government,” said Walters. “For the people that have lost confidence, I’m sorry for that. I think that there is probably a lack of understanding about everything that we do.”
Walters committed Friday to releasing more information on Robinson’s case if the opportunity arises, and only if approved to do so by the Office of Inspector General. She declined to provide her opinion on if the workers whose actions may have contributed to Robinson’s death should face criminal charges.
In a media release Friday, August 19, 2022, DCFS explained the timeline of Robinson’s interaction with the agency. Read below:
“Information concerning Mitchell was first reported to DCFS on April 12, 2022 from a hospital staff member. Mitchell presented to the hospital as unresponsive, Narcan was administered due to concern about substance exposure, but drug testing did not reveal any presence of substances in his system. DCFS did not initiate an investigation based on the information provided.
DCFS received another report concerning Mitchell on June 4, 2022, from a hospital staff member. Mitchell was brought to the hospital unresponsive. Narcan was administered and he was responsive to this medication.
Drug tests did not indicate the presence of substances in his system. Hospital staff shared the physician’s concern that Mitchell was exposed to a substance that standard drug testing would not detect, but also indicated the possibility of neurological issues.
DCFS assigned this report for investigation. Attempts were made to visit the family, but these were unsuccessful.
On June 17, 2022, a hospital physician contacted the child abuse hotline to share additional information regarding Mitchell. She informed the hotline that additional testing was ordered on June 4th to determine substance exposure. These results were received on June 16, 2022 and were positive for Fentanyl exposure. The physician informed DCFS that an individual would not medically respond to Narcan unless exposed to an Opioid.
Although there was suspicion of Mitchell having seizures, this was ruled out. The physician further reported concern due to learning of the parent’s involvement in a major drug bust that occurred in May. This information was provided to the responsible DCFS staff handling the open investigation.
The worker was on sick leave from June 21-27, 2022.”
DCFS leaders also explained their interaction with Robinson’s mother, Whitney Ard.
“Although no one was there when we went to the house, our staff did reach the mother by phone. She knew we were concerned. She expected us to return to the house, yet she did not do what was necessary to ensure the safety of her child. We failed to get back to the house in time. I deeply regret not doing so,” said Walters.
Ard remains jailed in East Baton Rouge Parish Prison after 14 mL of fentanyl was found in the child’s blood.
Robinson’s death happened just months after law enforcement carried out a drug bust at Ard’s home in May this year. Both Ard and the boy’s father were arrested and booked into East Baton Rouge Parish Prison. In that case Ard bonded out on June 24, just two days before Mitchell’s death.
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