Louisiana DCFS Head Resigns After Second Child Death in Three Months

Former DCFS Secretary Marketa Walters | Source: DCFS website

Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services Secretary Marketa Walters resigned on Thursday following multiple agency failures that may have contributed to the death of 1-year-old Jahrei Paul. Gov. Edwards announced he had accepted Walters’ resignation, noting that the state has begun a top-to-bottom third-party review of the agency to prevent further failures.

“The DCFS executive team will continue its work in evaluating and addressing the critical needs of the agency throughout this review. As Deputy Secretary, Terri Porche Ricks will serve as acting Secretary while the search for a new Secretary is being conducted. I wiall name a new Secretary to lead the agency as soon as possible,” Edwards said.

According to DCFS officials, the agency received an anonymous tip on October 21, 2022 – 10 days before Paul died – through their child abuse hotline. A manager assigned to take on cases resigned, but sent a message to her supervisor so that the tip could be passed to someone else. However, the supervisor was out sick, and did not check her email until Paul had already died.

DCFS had previously investigated Paul’s mother due to her marijuana use during her pregnancies. However, she was incarcerated in Texas when the anonymous tip was made, and Paul was in his father’s custody. Paul’s father had no previous investigations for abuse or neglect. Since Paul’s death, three other children have been removed from the father’s custody pending an investigation.

This is the second case in recent months that a child has died while on DCFS’ watch. In August 2-year-old Mitchell Robinson also died following an overdose. In that case, reports of drug exposure also fell through the cracks, and Walters similarly blamed staffing changes in that case.

“There is no denying that child welfare agencies nationwide are facing very difficult and complex challenges and Lousiana is no exception,” Edwards said in a statement. “Those issues include staff retention, high worker caseloads, increased substance and domestic abuse, and sadly the tragic deaths of innocent children. While there are no quick solutions, it is urgent that we find new and effective ways of addressing the problems to make certain we provide the help our families need and deserve to move our agency forward.”

Earlier this month, the Louisiana Legislative Auditor found several issues with the way DCFS handles the state’s Central Registry of child abusers and neglectful parents. According to Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, the system is likely getting overwhelmed with false reports and more trivial cases.

“When horrible things happen to children ‘known to the system,’ it’s almost always because agencies like DCFS are overwhelmed,” Wexler said. “But what’s overwhelming them are false reports, trivial cases, and cases in which poverty is confused with neglect.”

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