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Kids in Crisis: Budget cuts leave DCFS scrambling to protect the most vulnerable

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What if a child had to be taken away from a bad situation but couldn't get out when needed? These are real life experiences happening to foster children in the state's care. In a FOX investigation, "Kids in Crisis," we uncover that years of budget cuts and overwhelming case loads leave Louisiana's most vulnerable population at risk.

Talking about his daughters brings Kim Carver to tears.

"To be their dad is the best thing that ever happened to me without a doubt," he said.

Carver and his wife adopted three sisters from out of state. The youngest, though, came through the foster care system. And to eventually adopt her, the Carvers had to become certified foster parents in Louisiana.

"Our youngest daughter was actually remanded into foster care at birth because of drug exposure, pre-natal drug exposure, and that began our journey into foster care as we started advocating for her as foster parents at first, and she was placed with us as a 7-month-old and we adopted her at the age of 2," said Carver.

Through that journey, Carver said he realized the system wasn't working well.

"It wasn't serving children very well and that we needed to elevate it to work to improve the system. Part of the way we did that was becoming foster parents ourselves," said Carver.

So he became one of the founders of Crossroads Nola, a faith-based non-profit that partners with the state Department of Children and Family Services to help recruit, train, screen and support high-quality foster families.

"I kiss the face of my daughters every morning as we take them to school, every night when we put them to bed, and I realize that had we not answered the phone, right? And had we not been willing and open that these children that we're talking about in the state - I mean these could easily be my children," said Carver.

And the partnership between Crossroads Nola and the state may be more important that ever. That's because DCFS is still reeling from years of budget cuts and staff reductions.

"We need somewhere between 700 and 900 more staff just in child welfare - 700 more people. There is no way possible in this fiscal reality that we're going to get those 700 people back," said DCFS Secretary Marketa Garner Walters.

The department's budget was cut by 3% this year. Walters said they were lucky because that allowed them not to lay off any staff. But, that funding is nowhere close to where it used to be.

In 2008, when then-Gov. Bobby Jindal took office, DCFS had a $1.2 billion budget and a staff of 5,000. In a FOX 8 investigation over the summer, we revealed that by the time Jindal left office, those numbers had been slashed. The budget was $681 million and the staff was down to 3,300.

Now, the current budget is up to $690 million with a staff of over 3,400. But, remember: Walters said the department still needs as many as 900 workers in child welfare alone. And, the current budget will only allow them to fill about 250 positions.

Reporter: "You haven't had to lay anyone off but you still have 245 positions to fill. Are these critical positions?

Walters: "These are more than critical, they are critical plus, I mean yes, they are critical, they are front-line workers that would do child abuse investigations or direct foster care."

Walters said because the department isn't properly funded or staffed, child abuse investigators face double the normal case load.

"Both of those then contribute to the turnover rate because the people get burned out and overwhelmed so quickly that they just can't stay, and they can go do something far less stressful, make more money and not deal with the high number of case loads," said Walters. 

Reporter: "Does that put Louisiana children at risk?"

Walters: "Absolutely. Every single day." 

As a result, Walters said child abuse and neglect investigations take longer than they should. According to DCFS policy, a case shouldn't be open longer than 60 days, but in New Orleans that average is 67 days. In Covington, it's 77; and in Baton Rouge, it takes about 82 days to close a case.

Reporter: "Could that larger case load mean that a child is left in a home where that child may be neglected or in a potentially abusive environment longer?"

Walters: "Yes, unfortunately that is what is true. We do prioritize the calls as they come in, so we go to the most critical first and so do we hope that we are seeing every single child we need to - of course we do, that's our charge. Are we able to do that with our current structure? No, we're not." 

"We also need cars. We have not bought new cars in this agency since the Blanco administration. Until about two weeks ago, we just put 27 new cars in the field," said Walters. 

Walters said that's especially needed when you consider what happened to a DCFS worker trying to remove a child from a home.

"We had a worker in another region going to remove a child, which is the hardest thing that we do when you have to separate a child from their family. They got in the car and the car wouldn't start. How horrible of a situation that you already have a child who's crying, distressed, acute trauma situation, and the car won't start? That's unforgivable," said Walters.

Budget cuts have also affected the recruitment of new foster families. Right now, about 4,500 children are in the state's care. All are placed with foster families. But there's only 2,200 certified foster parents, and DCFS said that leads to households with too many children. In an effort to get the 500 more foster families the state needs, DCFS recently launched a new program called the Quality Parenting Initiative or QPI. The program aims to recruit new foster parents and ask more of current foster parents.

"We're going to ask them to be the ones to make those therapy appointments and doctor's appointments and take another step up more than they're doing to make sure that every single day every child is getting quality parenting regardless of who is offering it," said Walters. 

Both Walters and Carver said the community must step up to help children in the state's care. 

"We will never get back to where we were if we are just waiting on the government to do it, so we've got to have stronger, better partnerships," said Walters.

"We need families to step up and say, 'You know, we're going to be of help, we're going to take care of the most vulnerable in our society because that's our job, that's our responsibility as human beings,'" said Carver. 

Through his own personal story, Carver wants those in Louisiana to know just how rewarding being a foster parent can be. He would tell you he and his wife wouldn't change a single thing when it comes to how they built their family.

"After I've done it, this would be my Plan A every time," said Carver.  

Secretary Walters and her executive team are going on the road to meet with community partners across the state, and everyone is invited to have a conversation with DCFS leadership about child welfare and poverty. 

The department also has a new private partnership that will help pay for nine new state recruiting positions. Those workers will focus on finding foster homes for hard-to-place children, those are children who are older, disabled, or part of a larger sibling group. DCFS also said despite their staffing and budget cuts, they had a record number of foster children adopted over the past year. 

Copyright 2016 WVUE. All rights reserved.

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