DCFS accused in lawsuit of failing to protect abused children

Louisiana’s embattled Department of Children and Family Services took another hit Tuesday when a federal lawsuit was filed against the department and others on behalf of nine children who suffered abuse and psychiatric trauma while under DCFS supervision.
The 95-page lawsuit, filed in Louisiana’s Middle District in Baton Rouge, details the abuse suffered by the nine plaintiffs, but also outlines a system that the agency’s own director, David Matlock, said was in a “death spiral” due largely to understaffing.
A spokesman for DCFS said Wednesday that the department is aware of the lawsuit, but was not prepared to comment.
The lawsuit was filed by the nonprofit litigation firm A Better Childhood, which has sued child welfare agencies in at least 11 states. It names the DCFS, Matlock and Gov. Jeff Landry as defendants.
A press investigation into the death of multiple children under the department’s watch led to the November 2023 resignation of then-Secretary Marketa Garner Walters.
A 2021 federal report showed Louisiana’s child welfare agency struggling in several areas. Louisiana had a slower response time to complaints of child maltreatment than most other states. Louisiana’s average response time is 119 hours, or five days, while the national average is three and a half days and the national median is less than two, according to the report.
Louisiana also had fewer than half the number of child welfare workers than similar size states, such as Kentucky and Oregon. Louisiana had just 221 intake, screening, investigation and alternative response workers compared with 922 for Kentucky and 522 in Oregon. Even Mississippi, with two-thirds the population of Louisiana, had double the number of child welfare workers of Louisiana that year.
A Better Childhood has asked the court to give the lawsuit class action status, which could expand the plaintiff pool to include most of the 4,300-plus children currently under DCFS supervision.
The complaint describes a child welfare system with far too few workers and far too few adequate placements for children, where children are routinely subjected to mental and physical harm. The complaint asserts that these problems, and the harm to Louisiana’s foster children, is well known to the state and has continued for at least the last 10 years, while the state has failed to take necessary action and continued to cut the DCFS budget. The complaint points to data that show overwhelming caseloads, high placement instability, lack of access to medical care, and rates of child death in the state 50% higher than the national average.
The stories of the children named in the lawsuit illustrate the problems. DCFS frequently moves children from place to place, children are harmed in many of the placements where they are kept, and often denied any education. Maltreatment in foster care is rife, and the state does not have the resources to investigate all the reports of maltreatment it receives, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit asks the courts to find that the Defendants’ actions and inactions violate federal statutory law and the U.S. Constitution, and seeks an order directing DCFS and Louisiana to, among other things:
 Keep children safe and unharmed while in foster care;
Lower caseloads of individual workers to professional standards;
Take necessary steps to ensure that foster care is the temporary system it was intended to be;
Improve recruitment and retention practices of appropriately trained caseworkers;
Ensure that children are only placed in homes or, in rare cases, other settings that can properly meet their needs;
Develop a process to properly match children with appropriate and safe foster homes;
Plan steps towards a permanent family for each child;
Ensure that services recommended in the child’s case plans are actually provided; 
Ensure that older children are provided adequate transition planning and services; and 
Ensure that children with disabilities are provided with the services they need in their community.
According to A Better Childhood two law firms – Wheeler, Trigg, O’Donnell LLP, and Simon, Peragine, Smith & Redfearn, LLP worked for almost a year to collect the necessary information for the lawsuit and prepare the case for the court, which included speaking with hundreds of people in the state and reviewing all available information and reports.
“Foster children in Louisiana have essentially been abandoned by the state,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry,  Executive Director of A Better Childhood, one of the organizations which has filed the lawsuit. “The stories we have heard in putting this case together are nothing less than tragic, and we hope the court will order the state to enact significant reforms. The constitution requires nothing less.”
“The State of Louisiana has failed to keep these children safe,” says Kevin Homiak, Wheeler Trigg O’Donnell’s Pro Bono Committee Co-Chair. “Due to systemic issues, the state’s most vulnerable children are suffering. These children must be protected, not neglected.”
“We are working in partnership with A Better Childhood and stand firm in the quest to bring improvements to the foster care system in Louisiana,” said Robert L. Redfearn, Jr. who is leading the case for SPSR in Louisiana.
“The focus of this effort is to pave a better path for the children of our state who need critical changes in how the Department of Children and Family Services functions and is funded,” added Denise C. Puente, managing partner at SPSR.

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