Former DCFS workers detail years-long issues within Cenla offices

(KALB)
Published: Sep. 12, 2022 at 11:18 PM CDT|Updated: Sep. 19, 2022 at 3:29 PM CDT
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ALEXANDRIA, La. (KALB) - It has been almost a week since the last meeting between the state Senate Health and Welfare Committee and the Department of Children and Family Services, where leadership was tasked with detailing how they are responding to mishandled cases and calls for reform.

The department fell under public and governmental scrutiny this summer after the deaths of two children whose welfare belonged in the hands of DCFS. One died of a fentanyl overdose, and the other died from blunt force trauma to the head.

During the committee meeting, it became clear the ongoing issues within the department are not new, though recent tragedies in Baton Rouge stirred up public concern. In Central Louisiana, those issues date back at least four years.

Workers have been leaving the department, leading to more than 400 vacancies statewide. Though DCFS leadership has pointed to a lack of staff and resources leading to trouble within the department, especially since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, two former DCFS employees in Central Louisiana shared with News Channel 5 that it is much more than that and the issues have been building for far longer.

In the Alexandria office, exhausted workers, fear of retaliation, drug-exposed and suicidal children and a toxic work environment becoming a “major issue in the Alexandria office” were all vividly detailed in resignation letters filed by those two former employees in July. Both employees had each been with the agency for six years.

“Having [Secretary Marketa Garner Walker] get on TV and have her say that she didn’t know that this was happening, it’s insulting,” said Employee #1, a former foster care worker. “It makes me angry. Because she knew, and she covered it up and did nothing.”

“All of those concerns that were brought to them had been mentioned from supervisor all the way up, on more than one occasion, and not just by myself but by other workers, and nothing was ever being done,” said Employee #2, who also worked in foster care, as well as investigations. “So, we just kept going up and up the chain, and there was still nothing that was being done.”

In documents obtained by News Channel 5, there were dozens of emails and repeat cases highlighting efforts to address “very disturbing things going on within the agency” as early as 2018. One complaint form filed detailed retaliation, ostracized employees and violence in the workplace, both in the Avoyelles Parish and Rapides Parish offices.

“You just knew that you had to do what they told you to do, and you couldn’t speak up,” said Employee #2. “If you spoke up, you got more retaliation and backlash, so you just kinda learned to not say anything.”

“Just to walk in a place and feel like you are hated every single day, and to dread pulling up in a parking lot,” said Employee #1. “I can’t even...I mean that’s the best way I can describe it to you. It’s like, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone to have to be in an environment like that.”

In one instance, both former employees recalled a meeting where leadership singled them out and assigned them to different supervisors, calling their supervisor at the time an “enabler.”

“They all kind of laughed about it, and they were like, ‘But we’re working on that,’” said Employee #1. “Normal people in a supervisory, I guess, position, they don’t behave like that. But at DCFS, there are no rules. And it’s like the worst behavior that you can exhibit, the higher you go. The worst that you can be to your employees, the higher you’ll go.”

While the toxic environment ultimately forced them out the door, it was years of concerning cases that were repeatedly flagged up the chain of leadership that created an impossible set of circumstances. On multiple occasions, Employee #2 sent emails detailing specific cases with concerns for children’s welfare, including those pertaining to drug abuse in the home, sexual abuse, human trafficking, suicide and neglect. Many cases, Employee #2 had kept on a handwritten list as having been repeatedly handled by DCFS.

In one case that went on for a few years, a disabled teenager was significantly underweight, having tested positive for meth. The child was left inside the home for months despite the case worker’s pleas for removal.

“He was 110% dependent upon an adult to take care of him, and I was told that I could not remove this child from that home, even after testing positive for drugs, I still couldn’t take him from that home,” said Employee #2. “And then I was told that I couldn’t contact law enforcement due to this child being positive for drugs because I was manipulating them to get a child out of a home.”

That was just one case among dozens that law enforcement, foster parents, attorneys and several DCFS workers brought to the attention of Secretary Marketa Garner Walters at an in-person meeting in 2020.

But, they say nothing changed. Cases added up, and the pressure continued to build. When staff were assigned to help with backlogged cases, several were flagged as having gone inactive for months.

“When a worker has 100 cases, that’s a fatality waiting to happen,” said Employee #2. “You know, when cases aren’t gone out on in four to eight months, that’s a fatality waiting to happen.”

Workers were pushed to close cases “ASAP,” and the “State Office needed to see real progress being made (closures).”

“In general, supervisors and management don’t really listen to the worker. For them, these cases and these children and these people, they don’t have faces. It’s just numbers,” said Employee #1. “We’re hired to advocate for the best interests of the children, and we weren’t allowed to do that. And if you did that, if you advocated too strongly for children, they would kind of target you. You know you would be a troublemaker because you’re doing things they don’t like.”

The constant scrutiny over their decisions and concerns regarding cases became overwhelming for the worker.

Regardless of how small the caseload was, the pressure within the department and from management became crippling for the two former employees and those employees who remain.

“You know, the kids keep coming and the cases keep coming, and you’re always going to care for them,” said Employee #2. “It just got to a point where I just couldn’t. I couldn’t. Physically and mentally, I couldn’t do it anymore.”

“I had been medicated on more medication than I had ever been on in my life just to go to work every day,” said Employee #1. “And that’s a pretty common theme over there. You can go around and ask them and almost everybody will be able to tell you what kind of medication they take, for anxiety or depression or whatever it is. And it’s because of that environment. My doctor basically told me, and she had included it in some paperwork that she had sent when I had to take some time off, she said, ‘This job is killing you.’”

A job the two workers each viewed as their life’s calling, having reached an end, as the agency continues to face an onslaught of demands for big changes.

“You’ve got leadership in place at each office that is covering up the things that are happening. And that’s statewide, but it’s definitely here in Alexandria,” said Employee #1. “Whether it be agency failures, child deaths, whatever it may be, they’re not honest about it, and that needs to change. They need to change.”

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