“Even doing our best every day at all times, we cannot stop child abuse cases. We live in a world where people are harming children. We have a fentanyl crisis in this city and state.”
The secretary of Louisiana’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) called 2022 the deadliest year she has remembered in her career.
“I have never seen this number of fatalities in a single year in my career,” Marketa Garner Walters said. “There were 61 reported fatalities through the end of October. That is up 13 percent from last year.”
Walters and two other DCFS officials spoke to the media on Monday Nov. 7 following a case that resulted in 1-year-old Jahrei Paul’s death.
Officials said Paul showed up at a Baton Rouge hospital on Halloween in very bad shape and officials worked on the toddler but he died.
Dr. Beau Clark’s office conducted an autopsy and said the cause of death was a fentanyl overdose but the manner of death remains undetermined.
The Dept. Of Child & Family Services, DCFS, received a report to the child abuse hotline on Oct. 21 by an anonymous reporter alleging that the mother was using marijuana in the presence of her children, including on Oct. 20.
On Oct. 21, the case was immediately assigned to a supervisor who was recently reassigned to caseworker duties to help with the high influx of cases.
Within 3 days of this assignment, she put in her resignation, but continued to work for another five days to complete case activities. Her last day was Sunday, Oct. 30th. On Friday, Oct. 28th, she sent an email to her manager advising of no contact on this case.
The manager was on sick leave on the 28, and returned to work on Oct. 31.
After testifying in court proceedings, she returned to the office and began reviewing emails and reassigning cases. In the process of doing this, she received notification that Paul died.
DCFS previously investigated Paul’s mother due to marijuana use during her pregnancies. Louisiana law requires the Department of Children and Family Services to initiate an investigation of neglect when a newborn is exposed to any illegal substance or other substance used in an unlawful manner.
There were no indications of other drug use, and no other substances were discovered in standard meconium tests.
The agency initiated investigations according to state law, and there were never any concerns reported by medical professionals regarding the care of her children. There were never any other allegations or reports of abuse and neglect.
Paul’s death comes a little over four months after two-year-old Mitchell Robinson’s death.
Walters said on Nov. 7 that the agency has been overwhelmed with new cases and have been taking measures to deal with the staffing shortages. She said the agency has about nine permanent investigators employed.
Walters said the agency created an emergency team in August composed of experienced child abuse investigators from across the state to help with the case load in Baton Rouge. Walters said about 17 workers stayed to help in Baton Rouge for about three months.
“Even doing our best every day at all times, we cannot stop child abuse cases,” Walters aid. “Those cases are going to happen. We live in a world where people are harming children. We have a fentanyl crisis in this city and state and children are getting their hands on drugs that are killing them.”
DCFS Assistant Secretary of Child Welfare Rhenda Hodnett said in a six-month period in 2022, there have been 1,326 cases investigated. That is a 32 percent increase from the same time frame in 2021.
Hodnett said Livingston Parish has had to carry some of the cases of lower priority, according to the agency’s ranking system because of low staffing numbers. She said 30 children in the Baton Rouge region have had to be removed from unsafe situations in the month of October.
“We have 455 foster children in the Baton Rouge region,” she said. “That’s over a 60 percent increase from 2020.”
Senior Deputy Assistant Secretary of Child Welfare Evelyn Jenkins said the agency has hired a case assigner, whose duty is to watch cases and make sure they’re assigned quickly.