Give credit to Democrat state Rep. Jason Hughes for not shutting up and not toeing the party line: his call for Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards to fire Department of Child and Family Services Sec. Marketa Garner Walters, or for her to resign, rings true.
Walters has gotten into hot water over persistent problems with child welfare services supposed to place children at risk in protective environments increasingly failing to do so. Legislators finally had enough and have launched hearings on the matter, where in the first Hughes said Walters needed to clear out.
To all of this, Walters pulled out the dog-ate-homework excuse of politicians wishing to avoid responsibility: blaming her predecessor. In response, Hughes didn’t let her off the hook, pointing out that might work as an explanation after just six months in office, but Walters now has been in her post over six years and things seemed to have become worse.
Data concerning child protection backs up his observation. On a couple of pertinent performance indicators – few used now by the department were collected prior to fiscal year 2018 – things have improved since through fiscal year 2022, with average monthly new cases per investigator nearly halved from 22.25 to 12.85 and absence of maltreatment of children receiving assistance for six months rising from 92.75 percent to 96.29 percent. Yet while the latter exceeds the 95 percent goal, the former still lies well above the goal of 10.
But a couple of other troubling indicators flash alarm. Hotline calls answered directly, which can lead to immediate action in emergencies, at 82 percent were below the goal of 90. Worse, the percentage of alleged victims seen within the assigned response priority on a quarterly basis was just 56.89, well below the 75 percent target.
It’s not like Walters didn’t know about these, and she even asked for legislative assistance in enhancing department performance by the usual means: throwing more money at it. This spring, she claimed the department was short 400 caseworkers – it’s the fifth-largest in employees among all state departments most recently at just under 3,500 employees – and ran a vacancy rate of about 10 percent, double the typical she alleged, with 43 percent of entry-level caseworkers quitting last year. But, she observed, there’s hope yet: Walters reported that her department has launched a human resources initiative focused on diversity, equity and inclusion!
After her budget testimony, the Office of Children and Family Services got a 7 percent hike in this year’s budget up to $300 million, enough to fund 1,453 positions. Yet in FY 2018, child welfare services received $319 million to fund 1,389 positions. It’s on Walters’ watch that through FY 2022 these resources declined some $49 million even as positions grew by 59. If it’s truly a money problem, Walters was ineffective in preventing that, but if she built these budgets that defunded the agency then it’s leadership failure from both her and Edwards.
Either way, it indicts her managerial abilities, and the inability to hit certain important service targets combined with the recent publicized agency failures justifies Hughes’ request. Appropriately, she should heed him but if not Edwards must cut her loose and reverse the neglect he has allowed to fester following an emphasis on political fashion and excuse-making.