Foster care panic has come to LA

Faced with one revelation after another about tragedies involving children previously known to the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services, that agency has come up with a knee-jerk response that is simple, obvious and wrong: a worst-in-the-nation mad rush to tear far more children away from their families.
As a result, in 2022, the most recent year for which comparative data are available, while almost everywhere else in America recognized the enormous harm of needlessly sundering families and reduced entries into foster care, in Louisiana, they skyrocketed 23% over the previous year — the biggest percentage increase in the country.
There is a term for it: foster care panic. Everyone from frontline workers to agency leaders is terrified of having the next horror story on their watch, so they rush to take away children who could have remained safely in their own homes. That improves safety for the workers, their supervisors and the judges who rubber-stamp their decisions. But it makes children less safe.
Here’s why:
Most cases are nothing like the horror stories. Of all the children consigned to foster care in Louisiana in 2022, 90% did not involve even an allegation of sexual abuse or any form of physical abuse. In contrast, 88% involved neglect. Sometimes neglect can be extremely serious, more often it means the family is poor.
A child abuse investigation is not a benign act. It often involves strangers knocking on doors in the middle of the night and demanding that parents awaken their children and make them available to be questioned about the most intimate aspects of their lives. And even when there is no allegation of physical abuse the investigation often includes a strip-search of the child, as the caseworker looks for bruises.
The trauma is compounded, of course, if the child is forced out of the home and into foster care. Think back to the cries of children at the Mexican border when they were torn from their parents. Though DCFS caseworkers almost always mean well, children in Louisiana cry out the same way for the same reasons. So it’s no wonder study after study finds that, in typical cases, children left in their own homes fare better in later life even than comparably maltreated children placed in foster care. And yes, that applies even when the issue involves substance use.
Yes, some might argue, but if we take away all these children won’t they at least be physically safe? Not necessarily. Many children are taken from safe homes or homes that could be made safe with the right kinds of help, only to be abused in foster care. Multiple studies find abuse in one-quarter to one-third of family foster homes, and the rate of abuse in group homes and institutions is even worse.
It is this deluge of false allegations, trivial cases, poverty cases and needless removals that is leaving caseworkers with no time to investigate any case properly – so more children in real danger are missed.
A foster care panic compounds all of these problems. It further overloads foster care, creating an artificial “shortage” of foster homes. That increases the temptation to ignore abuse in foster homes and institutions. And it increases caseloads, giving workers still less time to examine each case. The horror stories are needles in a haystack. You’ll never find the needles if you keep making the haystack bigger.
If Louisiana is serious about child safety it will focus relentlessly on ameliorating the worst effects of poverty. Even small amounts of additional cash, for example, can make a huge difference. And it will provide high-quality family defense for impoverished parents caught in the DCFS net — not to get “bad parents” off, but to craft alternatives to the cookie-cutter “service plans” dished out by child welfare agencies, which sometimes make things even worse.
But Louisiana will never get there unless it does one thing first: Everyone from the governor to lawmakers to DCFS leadership needs to send a clear message to the frontlines: We will not tolerate foster care panic.

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