NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - A FOX 8 investigation uncovered years of budget cuts and overwhelming caseloads have left the state's most vulnerable population at risk. Now,you'll hear a first-hand account of what it's like for some children in the state's care. This is part two of our special report, Kids in Crisis.
Zulema Meza fought back tears as she told us her story. Taken from her family, separated from her younger brother and put in a foster home in August of 2014.
"I didn't know that would be the last time I'd see my brother for three weeks, I want to say last time I would hear from him," said Meza. "I didn't know what to do at the time. All I could think of is the place where my brother is suitable for him? Are they going to treat him well?"
She said she felt helpless about her future.
"What is going on with my mother? Why am I here? I want to say I didn't eat or sleep for two weeks," said Meza.
At the time, Meza was 16 and her brother was 15.
"We aren't criminals, we didn't choose to be put in a foster care system, we didn't choose to be ripped away from our families. Some of us, our parents just so happened to not have food in the house, or you played too rough and you got bruised and your parents can't explain what happened to you and it looks bad on them," said Meza.
Meza says she knows first-hand what those budget cuts, overwhelming caseloads and staff reductions mean for children in the state's care.
In 2008, when Gov. Bobby Jindal took office, the Department of Children and Family Services had a $1.2 billion budget and a staff of 5,000. But a FOX 8 investigation revealed that Jindal's administration slashed the budget to $681 million and had cut the staff to 3,300 by the time the governor left office.
"The people in the system, it shouldn't be just a job. I mean, they do need more people working there, and they need more people in the community willing to participate in helping these kids. Yes, they're in foster care, but soon they'll be out in society and you want them, us, to be contributing in a positive way. If you don't have that support, even in care, then you're basically setting us up for failure in the end," said Meza.
When Meza aged out of the system this year at 18, "even when the judges say, you know, 'Make sure this young girl has somewhere to go,' it wasn't done on my 18th birthday. I left court, walked, caught a bus and got to class, and that night I had to figure out where I was sleeping," she said.
She says she was cut loose with no where to go.
"I was homeless for two weeks and then someone, a relative of mine, took me in for like a month or two, and then, after that, I was like in and out of my car, sleeping on friend's couches, and at some point, I slept in a friend's closet, I had a twin bed in a friend's closet," said Meza.
But, before those budget cuts, the state offered the Young Adult Program to help foster kids like Meza. DCFS Secretary Marketa Garner Walters said that money came from the state's general fund. Once cut, it wasn't coming back.
"So, what happened was that children aged out and walked away from us and had no state resource with them. That's unforgivable," said Walters.
Walters says the state needs to do more to make sure kids have what they need once they leave the foster care system - things like a driver's license, access to food stamps and medicaid coverage.
"The bottom line is we need to do a whole lot better in making sure that they don't leave here without an adult, without some attachment to a caring, competent adult that's going to be there for them when they have a crisis," said Walters.
Meza is now getting help from a non-profit called Project 18.
"We founded Project 18 because of the reduction in services that we saw, and so it was a response to what we saw being eliminated from Baton Rouge," said Project 18 founder Sonya Brown. "As a former foster youth myself, I understand how much support is needed to go from transitioning from care to actually being successful."
The founders of Project 18 say they help with emergency assistance for everything from rent, transportation, to tuition assistance. They're a family for those who don't have their own.
"One of the most amazing things I think we're able to do, recently, is be there for one of our young people. She went into labor, we got the phone call at like 4-something in the morning, and it was on Halloween, and we were able to be there in the delivery room and see the amazing experience of seeing a baby being born," said Project 18 founder Bonnie DeSalle.
As for Meza, she's now reunited with her brother and in her second year at Delgado.
"People don't like to think about these things, but, what if it was you? What if it was your child? Would you just stand back and let it happen? Would you be silent about it?" said Meza.
She aspires to be a doctor and one day be a voice for other young people.
"I know when I was in care there were so many times that I just wanted to scream out, 'Help me! Someone do something, this is not right, I didn't choose this,'" said Meza.
DCFS says the Young Adult Program that was cut in 2013 did provide more state resources for kids who aged out of the foster care system. They were also given a case worker to help monitor their transition into adulthood. DCFS says they still offer a case worker to kids once they leave care, but it's through a contract provider, and the state says they're not going to provide the same level of services.
DCFS tells us they always try to keep siblings together in foster care unless it's in their best interest to separate them. And, we're told they've formed a task force to try to prevent homelessness and address the needs of kids aging out of the system.