Baby Steps: Despite recent changes, Louisiana struggles to recruit foster care workers and parents | The Latest | Gambit Weekly


Brandee Sandusky and her husband Rhett had been certified as foster parents for less than 24 hours in February 2018 when they got a call from the state about a newborn baby girl.

“We got certified and got our first placement that same day, which hints to how great the need is in general,” she says.

Though their goal in fostering was always reunifying children with their birth parents when safe and possible, as Louisiana teaches in its foster care training, after two years of fostering her, the Sanduskys ended up adopting that baby girl — now a giggling, tutu-wearing 4-year-old.

Following Madison’s adoption and the birth of their youngest daughter, the Sanduskys opened their home to foster children again this year. They knew the need for homes was still there, and they wanted to do their part in providing a safe place for these children.

But they quickly learned just how bad the situation still was.

Soon after agreeing to start taking in kids again, they fostered a baby boy for six weeks. In this case, his birth family was doing well and they knew he’d only be staying with them briefly.

But the calls from the state’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) — which is in charge of foster care, adoption and family services — didn’t stop there.

“We had him six weeks, and I got a call probably every four days for another child,” she says. “One of them was like, ‘Please take this child. We have nowhere for them to go, even if you have a couch for the night.’”

The Sanduskys’ Baton Rouge home is one of just 1,670 foster homes in Louisiana. Meanwhile, there were 3,335 children in the foster care system as of July 25. More than a quarter of those foster homes were only for specific children, and only 47 were specifically for older children.

“The need is so great,” Brandee Sandusky says.

There have been major shifts in the last six years that have drastically impacted everything from how Louisiana funds its child welfare system to the entire way we think about how the system should function. As a whole, the system is moving toward a more trauma-informed approach that gives birth parents a more active role in the foster care process.

But long-standing problems persist, as the state struggles to attract people to participate in the system across the board, whether it’s finding more families like the Sanduskys to foster children or filling positions at DCFS.

Part of the problem is that the state has underfunded the child welfare system for years. The Legislature slashed state funds from DCFS drastically during then-Gov. Bobby Jindal’s tenure, and the department still hasn’t bounced back fully. The department has hundreds of vacant positions, pushing more cases onto existing employees and making it harder for them to support foster parents in the state.

Sandusky says she feels the state should do more to help foster parents, “besides just a letter at Christmas that’s like, ‘Thanks for your help.’”

“You’re like, hey, well, OK, great, but I feel like there could be more support,” she says.

2) The Sanduskys by Kristen Soileau.jpg

Brandee and Rhett Sandusky and their daughters Cora Jane and Madison. 

Foster care in Louisiana looks a lot different than it did a decade ago — or even five years ago, for that matter.

Many children enter the child welfare system due to neglect cases, and often what the state considers “neglect” is unmet needs stemming from poverty. Historically, the state would sometimes end up putting money toward having people other than the birth parents take care of the child rather than helping birth parents access the resources and support they need to raise their child in the first place.

“If we’re saying that mom loves this kid, mom cares about their wellbeing, but she lacks whatever it is, why on earth would our reaction be to remove them from their mom, put them with a stranger and then pay a stranger for that very thing that mom is saying that she needs?” says Joy Bruce, executive director of CASA New Orleans, a nonprofit that assigns volunteers to advocate for foster children in court.

“That’s ridiculous, and that’s literally how the system would sometimes work because that was the only way that we were allowed to spend those funds.”

In 2017, Congress passed the Family First Prevention Services Act, which aimed to address this issue by investing more money to keep families together on the front end. According to DCFS Secretary Marketa Walters, it was the most dramatic policy change to the system in decades.

Under the new policy, DCFS workers visit regularly with families in need for up to 18 months and connect them to services, like medical care including mental health care, transportation, job training and education. During the last fiscal year, the state provided 2,981 families with services in their homes and served 5,749 children in foster care, according to DCFS.

These in-home interventions outside the foster care system take a lot of time and resources.

“When we’re doing home-based services, we’re in the home two or three times a week, and that’s very intense,” Walters says, “as opposed to when you’re in foster care, you’re seeing the kid at least once a month.”

The transition hasn’t been easy. Walters says the state had to opt into the Family First program at the last minute possible, because preparing for the shift took so much time and work for a department that’s already understaffed.

A girl meets Princess Tiana at the 2018 Adoption Celebration event..jpg

A young girl meets Princess Tiana at a DCFS adoption event.

“It was a big change in how we fund our work,” Walters says. “It wasn’t just flip the switch and say, ‘OK, you can do this,’ because what Family First did was say, ‘OK, we’re gonna give you this money to spend at the front end of the system on prevention, but to do that, what we’re going to do is decrease how we fund your back end.’”

Walters says the whole department had to do a ton of work on budgeting, policy and procedure to implement the change. For instance, they had to create new residential treatment programs for youth as money was moved away from existing group homes for foster kids.

“I don’t know how many states were early adopters and jumped in first, but they were not poor states,” Walters says. “Because it took us every inch of the time that we had to try to build up what we were going to lose on the back side to be able to do the front side work.”

Bruce says the law has been a positive change, but that she would like to see more money go toward helping families get the resources they need to raise their children.

“I see that efforts are being made and that progress is being made,” she says. “But there’s still an enormous amount of stigma, bias … about giving money to ‘them.’ Why are we spending money on that? And then that’s a whole ’nother conversation to unpack around race, class and saviorism.”

As researchers learn more about child development and psychology, another major shift has been a movement nationally toward a more trauma-informed child welfare system.

More people across the whole system are beginning to understand the impact of early traumatic experiences on a person throughout their lives. Bruce is one of several educators across the state who lead training sessions on this topic, including at local public schools.

There are also Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI) trainings across the state, which use what we know about the brain and the body to help build healthy relationships. Developed at Texas Christian University, judges, school employees, child and family services workers, CASA volunteers and foster parents across Texas have participated in the training, and now, experts are trying to replicate the approach in Southeast Louisiana.

Crossroads NOLA, a religious nonprofit, offers both in-person and online trainings in both the Greater New Orleans area and Northshore. They also help connect educators with people wanting to take the training in other parts of the state.

TBRI training Photo Courtesy of Crossroads NOLA.JPEG

There are trauma-informed training parents for foster care parents, which Crossroads NOLA helps facilitate.

Bruce says TBRI has been a game changer for her since the first training she attended.

“I walked out of there and I thought this is the single best training I’ve ever gotten in my entire career because not only am I going to use it in my job, I’m literally going to go home and use this in conversations with my husband or my mother,” she says.

In 2016, Louisiana adopted a model called the Quality Parenting Initiative (QPI) designed at embedding these ideas into the child welfare system. Under QPI, birth parents have relationships with foster parents and the child, as long as it is safe to do so.

Madeleine Landrieu, dean of Loyola University New Orleans College of Law and a children’s advocate, said she was introduced to QPI during the Jindal administration but because of budget cuts, DCFS didn’t have the capacity to adopt the practice. Under Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration, the department was able to make the shift.

Before the initiative, birth parents and foster parents typically didn’t have a relationship. Sometimes, foster parents didn’t know the birth parents’ full names or where they were. Now, from the get-go, foster parents are in contact with birth parents when possible with the help of a state caseworker.

“The old way of doing foster care was pretty much, ‘We’re the state, we’re the experts. We’re going to come in, we’re going to tell the foster parents how to foster, what to do, how they should behave … We were the boss,” Walters says. “QPI turned it upside down and said, ‘Look, there needs to be a partnership between foster parents and birth parents and the state worker, the caseworker needs to be involved in that connection.’”

Walters says foster parents and birth parents have taken some time to adjust to QPI. This was especially true for families who may have originally gotten into fostering thinking it would be a road to adoption rather than reunifying families.

“We have a lot of foster parents who were like, ‘Whoa, that is not what I signed up for. I never wanted to know who those people were. This is emotional. What do you mean I have to know who they are? What do you mean I’m supposed to have meetings with them? I don’t want to do that … That’s too personal,’” Walters says. “And then we have birth parents that were like, ‘I’m gonna talk to that person that got my child?’ They weren’t real sure about that either.”

But she also says since the state started QPI, foster families and birth families have developed deep connections, even when the child leaves the foster care system either through adoption or being reunified with their birth parent. That may mean a child goes to visit their former foster parent for a week in the summer or a birth parent may come to milestone events in a child’s life, like graduations.

Marketa Walters at a 2021 press conference by HILARY SCHEINUK .jpg

DCFS Secretary Marketa Walters at a 2021 press conference.

This, too, is the case with the Sanduskys. When they decided they wanted to foster, the state had already rolled out QPI and they learned in their training about the goals of reunification if possible.

Meeting Madison’s birth parents for the first time, Brandee Sandusky remembers telling them, “Hey, we’re here for y’all as well, not just for Madison. We want to help y’all as much as we can as well.”

She says the caseworker and lawyer at the meeting looked surprised by their approach.

“I looked at them like, ‘Wait. This is what you’re teaching us to do. Is this bad?’” she says. “And they’re like, ‘No, we’ve never had foster parents be this open about not just wanting to take a child from the parents.’”

The Sanduskys now invite Madison’s birth mom to all the “big events” in her life, like her 4th birthday party earlier this year.

“It’s extremely important for her to know that we love her birth mom and that her birth mom does love her, and that just because she was adopted doesn’t mean that we cut off where she came from,” Brandee Sandusky says.

Of course, such relationships with birth parents aren’t always possible, and just because the state announces a new initiative doesn’t mean every caseworker and every foster family will instantly transform the way they think about foster care.

Still, overall, Walters says that stories like these are a sign QPI is working. “The difference is amazing,” she says. “When you look at what we used to do and what we do now, it is the best single decision that the agency could have made.”

While major policy changes are helpful, at the end of the day, Louisiana’s child welfare system isn’t functioning properly because there aren’t enough state workers to manage the cases or foster families to welcome children into their homes.

As of press time, in the New Orleans region, there are 201 children in foster care and 110 foster homes, 17 of which are for specific children. Only three of the homes are specifically for older children, yet 81 of those children are between the ages of 12 and 17.

“When we don’t have a foster home in this region that’s available to take a teenage girl, then we’re not doing any of those things well,” Bruce says. “That’s not like slamming anybody, but we’re not doing Family First well. We’re not doing QPI well.”

With a shortage of foster homes, Bruce says those working in child welfare are stuck between a rock and a hard place. In some places, the only families willing to take a child in might not also be ones who embrace working with birth families.

“Do we enforce QPI and then say that there’s nowhere for these girls to go, or do we say well, it’s not ideal but at least they’re here?” she says. “Those are really terrible choices that we shouldn’t be having to make and yet here we are.”

When the state legislature makes budget cuts, health, education and social services are some of the only places they can take money from that aren’t protected by the constitution. And during budget cuts during the Jindal administration, DCFS had to cut around 500 positions.

Bobby Jindal by Chris Granger.jpg

Under former Gov. Bobby Jindal, the state slashed the Department of Children and Family Services’ budget. 

Though the legislature is no longer slashing the department’s budget, now the department is struggling to fill hundreds of positions. In the last year, DCFS has raised salaries to attract workers.

A child welfare specialist trainee, who would need a four-year degree, used to start at just below $30,000 and now starts at just over $36,000. Child welfare specialists of all levels got boosts of around $7,000 to $8,000, while supervisors went from around $47,000 to around $56,000.  

Having so many vacant positions has put a strain on workers who already have difficult jobs, who are now having to manage more children’s cases for relatively low wages.

“We’re in your life when you don’t want us and we’re having hard truth discussions about how you’re going to raise your children,” Walters says. “People have very strong feelings about being able to raise their children the way they want to raise their children, not the way the state tells them to raise their children.”

Put all that together and it becomes clear why some positions in the department, social services analysts and child welfare specialists, have a turnover rate of more than 40%.

“Staffing has affected every single decision we make,” Walters says. “When you’ve got somebody out on [family and medical leave] and somebody else just had a baby and three people have retired and one has quit, somebody has to pick up all those cases … which means instead of my 12 (cases) that I should have, I’ve now got 20.”

“Well, am I going to do as good of work with 20 as I would with 12? No.”

The shortage of child welfare workers and foster families aren’t unrelated either. According to Walters, foster families sometimes have a hard time getting in touch with their foster child’s caseworker because that worker is so swamped.

“We don’t have enough caseworkers and so there are times that foster parents feel like they’re being ignored,” she says. “They need help and they’re calling their worker, and their worker’s not calling them back, and so they feel neglected.”

Walters says her department is doing everything they can to fix the problem and connect foster parents to mentor newer foster parents. Meanwhile, the governor and First Lady Donna Edwards have also launched two initiatives aimed at recruiting and supporting foster families.

Louisiana Fosters is a network that connects foster children and parents with resources from nonprofits, churches, businesses and other community groups. One Church One Child aims to encourage each of the state’s 4,000 churches to find one family willing to foster a child and have that whole church help support the child.

“If you think about it from that perspective, it doesn’t seem so complicated,” Walters says. “It doesn’t seem so hard. But somehow, we’ve never quite cracked that nut, so to say.”

Gov. John Bel Edwards and First Lady Donna Edwards launch Louisiana Fosters SCREENSHOT.png

First Lady Donna Edwards and Gov. John Bel Edwards promote their Louisiana Fosters initiative, which aims to provide foster families with existing community resources.

Everything about the foster care system is complicated. Cases are rarely clear cut, and judges have to make difficult decisions about what’s best for children in case-by-case circumstances. Meanwhile, foster parents have to care for and love the children in their care, even though they know that child likely won’t stay with them forever.

It’s such a difficult subject that Bruce says that people generally don’t like talking or thinking about it.

“These issues are hard, and they’re complex,” she says. “You hear about child abuse and neglect, and you don’t want to try to identify with it. We’ve hit the very first hurdle right there.”

When people do think about foster care, there aren’t simple, tidy solutions to their involvement like donating to a food bank and moving on. There are ways to donate school supplies or holiday gifts but often the needs are more specific, like paying for trauma-informed training or helping an older child pay rent after they had to call into work sick, Bruce says.

Mayor's Mardi Gras Ball 5 February 22,2019 (copy)

Joy Bruce, executive director of CASA New Orleans

“Because the problem is so complex, figuring out what your part of the solution is is also complex,” she adds. “It means that there needs to be some level of understanding … It all has to be taken with a much heavier weight to it, not just because of the weight that it is on the child but also the weight that it is on you as an individual.”

But because the children in foster care are under the care of the state, advocates say everyone has a role to play in supporting foster children, including holding elected officials accountable for funding the child welfare system.

“Kids in foster care are our kids. Their custodial parent is the state of Louisiana, so you, as the taxpaying citizen of the state of Louisiana, are part of their custodial parents,” Bruce says.

Kim Carver, a board member of Crossroads NOLA, says because the need is so great he thinks the entire community, including churches, nonprofits, businesses and other organizations, needs to play a part in providing for foster children and their families — not just the government.

“When any of those groups falter, when any of them take their eye off the ball, when any of them are not operating at optimal performance, families and kids are suffering,” he says. “Everybody can do better and more.”

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