Sen. Regina Barrow, facing camera, listens to acting Secretary Terri Ricks of the Department of Children and Family Services during a Nov. 18 hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Women and Children. In front of Barrow is a photo of Jahrei Paul, a 1-year-old who died from fentanyl poisoning. Credit: Greg LaRose/Louisiana Illuminator

A large portion of Louisiana’s child welfare workers say they remain passionate about the work they do, but nearly half aren’t satisfied with their jobs. The revelations come from a survey of more than 800 state employees in the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), an agency under scrutiny following the deaths of three toddlers whose households had been reported to authorities.

The Louisiana Legislative Auditor conducted the survey in October, sending questions to 1,433 DCFS staff working in child welfare areas such as child protective services, foster care and adoption. There were 816 responses for a rate of 56.9%. 

The results, which the auditor’s office made public in a report issued Monday, show nearly 89% of respondents are passionate about their work but only 54% are satisfied with their job. The answer revealed employees are more satisfied with how they are treated by their immediate supervisor than by managers and supervisors in general or leadership in the child welfare division. 

High caseloads and limited resources prevent children and families from receiving quality services, according to the survey respondents. A lack of support from supervisors and inadequate transportation were other obstacles mentioned in the auditor’s report. 

Pay, caseload expectations and a lack of support and respect from supervisors and managers were the responses given when employees were asked what was the most important issue that needs to be addressed at DCFS. 

“The most important issue at DCFS is the added workload that comes along with working with the parents,” one respondent said, according to the auditor’s report. “Sometimes the parents require more attention than the children. If there’s four different kids with four different dads, the caseworker has to work with five parents and four kids. Parents should count towards the caseload.”

“There does not seem to be much teamwork,” another respondent said. “The few workers who are still here are stressed, burned out, and overworked. Staff have changed since others quit. New workers are not being trained properly. Since new staff came aboard, professionalism is gone. No professionalism whatsoever.”

The auditor’s report also included a breakdown of results based on state regions and work area. Lake Charles (62%) and Lafayette (60%) reported the highest job satisfaction results, while Thibodaux (41%) was the lowest. Employees in Home Development (62%) were most satisfied with their work, and the Centralized Intake Unit staff (38%) were the least satisfied.

Social workers comprise the Centralized Intake Unit staff and process all reports of abuse and neglect. They help determine how and whether DCFS and other authorities follow up on information.

“When I mentioned the concerns of a trafficker potentially following me home after picking up a victim, an area director advised me it was the nature of my job.”

DCFS employee

The survey also found 58% of respondents agreed the agency culture at DCFS  promotes the welfare of children. But only 29% said their caseload allows them sufficient time to provide children and families with the services they need. Only 37% said they had access to adequate resources to help their clients. 

When asked if they agreed or strongly agreed that their caseload provided them sufficient time to provide quality services, results were the lowest from staff in Baton Rouge (17%) and Alexandria (19%). The highest rate was in Lake Charles (44%), but still more than half of child welfare workers did not agree with the statement.

Covington (23%) and Baton Rouge (26%) rated the lowest when asked about access to resources. No region rated higher than 47%.

Child welfare workers were also asked about their safety on the job; 24% disagreed or strongly disagreed when asked about this.

“Child welfare has become increasingly dangerous,” one respondent said. “I have personally had clients make contact with my child to ensure I knew they knew how to find me. When safety concerns are presented, my immediate supervisor and manager do put an action plan in place. When I mentioned the concerns of a trafficker potentially following me home after picking up a victim, an area director advised me it was the nature of my job.”

DCFS Acting Secretary Terry Ricks provided a two-page response to the auditor’s report. In it, she said the agency “is committed to ensuring that every employee of the agency has an opportunity to feel heard, valued and supported.”

As evidence of that commitment, Ricks mentioned pay increases and the creation of a Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging Council and an employee assistance program.

She also highlighted a one-year leadership training program DCFS provides for its employees through Grambling State University. The department pays for the program that’s open to supervisors and managers.

DCFS has also proposed a leadership professional development program, Ricks said. It would involve once-a-month sessions over a 12-month period “led by highly experienced child welfare leaders and professionals at the national level.”

The auditor’s survey could be among the topics discussed Wednesday when the state Senate Health and Welfare Committee meets again. Lawmakers on the panel have convened through the fall to press DCFS leadership for answers after two fentanyl-related deaths of young children in Baton Rouge and the beating death of a toddler in Houma this year.

Marketa Walters resigned last month as DFCS secretary.

Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Louisiana Illuminator maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Greg LaRose for questions: Follow Louisiana Illuminator on Facebook and Twitter.

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Greg LaRose has covered news for more than 30 years in Louisiana. Before coming to the Louisiana Illuminator, he was the chief investigative reporter for WDSU-TV in New Orleans. He previously led the government...