Over the past few months, tragedies involving abused and neglected children and a “toxic” work environment at the state Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) have dominated Louisiana headlines. The Advocate reported that “crippling staff shortages, toxic work environments, and escalating caseloads are causing an exodus of Louisiana’s child welfare workers, and Louisiana legislators said that they are not convinced the agency is doing enough to right itself.”

The agency has also been in the hot seat with lawmakers over two recent audit reports regarding its administration of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, which it uses, in part, to fund child welfare in Louisiana. Over the past decade, TANF dollars used on Louisiana child welfare programs increased from $13.6 million in 2012 to $41.5 million in 2021, which is now over a quarter of Louisiana’s entire TANF budget. Nationally, that number is 7.6%. During the fiscal year 2021, funding was used to provide $30.2 million for child protection investigation services, which involved responding to reports of child abuse or neglect and, if necessary, initiating emergency removal and placement; and $11.2 million was used for what’s known as emergency assistance, which provides case management and planning for children placed in foster care.

In a December 2021 audit report of the agency’s TANF program, the state’s legislative auditor found that “DCFS does not collect sufficient outcome information to determine the overall effectiveness of TANF-funded programs and initiatives.” The report included recommendations for improving the administration of the TANF program that are consistent with research on effectively addressing poverty and child welfare: Louisiana should reduce out-of-wedlock pregnancies and increase opportunity through employment. Both of these are federal TANF priority areas, and research has consistently found that the leading cause of child abuse in the United States is poverty. Children whose parents are stressed due to circumstances rooted in poverty often bear the brunt of that frustration. The odds of living in poverty are high for children living in single-parent homes.

Each year between 2014 and 2019, Louisiana ranked second highest in the nation for out-of-wedlock pregnancies, with 54% of pregnancies being out-of-wedlock in 2019. In addition, Louisiana ranked seventh highest in the nation for teen birth rate in 2014, and in 2019 was third highest in the nation. 

Looking at the most recent data available when the audit was published, Louisiana has the lowest TANF Work Participation Rate (WPR) in the nation at 3.5%. The WPR requires states to engage a certain percentage of families receiving TANF cash assistance in specific work activities, such as employment, job searches, or vocational training. Louisiana recently doubled the amount of cash assistance it gives to qualifying families, and lawmakers are right to ask what employment-related supports recipients are receiving if they are capable of working.

Another June 2022 audit report found continued noncompliance and control weaknesses related to TANF work verification requirements:

“DCFS did not provide case management services to cash assistance recipients from July 2020 through April 2021 under the TANF program. Failure to provide case management services resulted in noncompliance with work verification plan requirements, including determining when a TANF recipient is ready to engage in work activities…. This is the tenth consecutive year we have reported exceptions with internal controls and compliance related to this TANF requirement.”

Lawmakers should push for regular updates on how these serious findings are being addressed and resolved. Typical audit follow-ups happen after about two years, but kids whose safety depends on these services can’t wait that long. They can’t even wait until the next legislative session. This must be addressed now.