Zurik: The Jindal effect takes a huge toll at DCFS

Published: Jul. 1, 2016 at 2:10 AM CDT|Updated: Jul. 2, 2016 at 5:35 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - The Louisiana legislature finished up 19 weeks straight of meetings, the longest in its 204 years. The reason: a budget mess left behind by Gov. Bobby Jindal's eight years in office.

Many politicians on both sides of the aisle say Jindal's presidential aspirations prompted him to make political decisions detrimental to our state. We investigated the Jindal effect, and its impact on some of Louisiana's most vulnerable citizens.

"This is our room," says Terry Hrabovsky as she shows us the small bedroom where as many as 50 Louisiana children have spent the night. Hrabovsky has been a foster parent for nine years.

"Whether they're in our home for a day or a year," she tells us, "if we can give them a vision of what love and safety looks and feels like than maybe we can plant some seeds that will grow later in life.

"I do get emotional because these are kids and they're already stigmatized by being in foster care," Hrabovsky says.  "You know, heard so many times that foster kids are damaged. And they're not damaged, they're just kids who want a mom and dad like any other kid. They're just kids who want to be loved and accepted for who they are and they just need a chance."

Hrabovsky has seen directly the impact of state budget cuts over the past eight years on Louisiana's foster care program.

"When state cars were cut or limited," she says, "transportation became a problem for foster parents. You know most foster families work. So kids have doctor's visits and therapy visits and stuff like that, transportation became a problem."

Staff reductions have forced state caseworkers to take on an overwhelming caseload. "They've had to take on the workloads of other workers that weren't able to be replaced," Hrabovsky says.  "And I don't know that it's humanly possible."

She says the impact on some foster children is inexcusable, unexplainable. "I know that we took a little child the other day so he would have to sleep in an office," she tells us. "Wednesday. He came to us at 9:30 [p.m.]."

Since September 2015, at least eight foster kids have been had to sleep in state offices.

"It is traumatic for the child," says Marketa Garner Walters, the new head of the Department of Children and Family Services. "So you're adding trauma onto trauma because we wouldn't have the child if they were healthy and well. They're already in trauma that we've taken them from home, from a bad enough situation that we had to remove them. And then you have the added trauma of them having to sleep in an office."

For one special needs foster child, that traumatic experience took place last month.

"A 7-year-old autistic child had to spend the night in an office," Secretary Walters says.  "And we're not equipped for that. We don't have beds; we don't have kitchens to cook for them. One of the workers had to go home and prepare food for this child and bring it back to the office. We don't have places for children to bathe or wash their face. We're not set up as a hotel, we're an office building with desks and chairs and filing cabinets."

Walters says staff brought in an air mattress for the child.

Secretary Walters says she places the blame on the Jindal administration and the cuts of the past eight years. "We don't have the foster parents we need," she tells us. "We don't have the staff we need to go recruit new foster parents. We don't have the number of therapeutic foster homes we need for special children with special needs. And so it's just painful all the way around."

DCFS staff has been decimated - a staff of 5,000 as Jindal took office is now down to 3,300 when he left, a 33 percent staff reduction.

The budget numbers are just as startling.  Before Jindal, Walters says the department's annual budget was roughly $1.2 billion. In 2015, it was $681 million. And it's little better now - at $690 million for the Fiscal Year 2016-17, DCFS's budget has been cut nearly by half.

"It's very significant because the caseloads have not gone down," Walters says. "We have more children in foster care.  We have more children coming in."

Jindal left office in January and left the new governor with a $900 million budget deficit for the last six months of this fiscal year. He also left Louisiana with a structural budgetary mess which forced the new governor and lawmakers to close next year's deficit of $2 billion.

"He was putting what many say [was] his interest in running president above that of the state of Louisiana and made some very damaging decisions," remarks FOX 8 political analyst Mike Sherman.

Analysts say Jindal focused mostly on presidential credentials and ignored the catastrophic impact on Louisiana.

"It's clear many of the things he campaigned on were at odds with how he governed from the very beginning," Sherman says. "He was trying to maintain impeccable credentials as a conservative running for president even when it put him at odds with Republicans in the legislature that said decisions bad for Louisiana."

Sherman cites the example of the Stelly plan, a tax increase passed by voters in 2002.  Before taking office, Jindal supported it.  Then Jindal flipped: He eliminated the tax increase, costing the state about $300 million a year in revenue.

"When he realized that repealing Stelly would aid his conservative credentials, he flipped and supported Stelly repeal," Sherman says.

Timmy Teepell, Jindal's campaign adviser, disputed suggestions that presidential ambitions had impacted the governor's tax policies. In a June 3 letter to The Advocate, Teepell wrote,

This may come as a surprise to you, but there are many good people in this country, including Jindal, who believe in small-government conservatism because they believe it represents the best governing philosophy, not out of a nefarious ulterior motive.

Best of intentions aside, when Jindal entered office, Louisiana had a budget surplus. That extra money is long gone now, and many politicians on both sides of the aisle agree that Jindal's fiscal policies were a bust.

"Governor Jindal was able to do something that politicians strive for and few achieve, uniting Republicans and Democrats," Sherman tells us. "But Governor Jindal did it uniting them against the Jindal policies which left the state in a fiscal mess."

That fiscal mess impacts state offices and, most importantly, the people who need the state's help the most.

"This is the state's job," Sec. Walters says. "This is government responsibility."

Child abuse investigators who should receive 10 new cases a month now get 20. And investigations into abuse take longer.

It all means that children's health and their safety could be impacted – dangerously so. And with every state office fighting for limited dollars, fixing the decisions of the past eight years may take time - time that a generation of kids in need of the state's help may not have.

Walters says the DCFS she now leads has been decimated. "I would like to say we could [recover] quickly," she tells us but admits, "We'll be paying for this for years and years and years."

Jindal can look back on some clear successes. He trimmed back the size of government, certainly, and instituted ethics reform, claiming to set a new gold standard in Louisiana – though most agree that much more needs to be done in enforcing that standard. Jindal overhauled public education in Louisiana and set high marks in his response to crises such as Hurricane Gustav and the BP oil spill.

But it's the mess that Jindal left the state that will haunt his legacy.

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