Can Louisiana's children be helped? Lawmakers push this potential solution for welfare failures.
Louisiana lawmakers are addressing the failures in the state's welfare system by considering the establishment of an Office of the State Child Ombudsman. Senate Bill 137, which received unanimous support in the State Senate, aims to increase accountability and improve the treatment of vulnerable children in state care. The bill now moves to Louisiana's House of Representatives for further consideration.
The State Child Ombudsman, if created, would have the responsibility of reviewing complaints regarding the treatment of children in state care and providing annual briefings to the Legislature on their findings. This role would involve recommending changes to the way Louisiana's state agencies serve children and issuing a biennial report on the conditions of children in state-run facilities.
Louisiana currently lacks any form of children's ombudsman, making it an outlier compared to other states. Research conducted by Rick Wheat, president of Louisiana United Methodist Children and Family Services, reveals that Louisiana is one of only five states without ombudsman services for children. It is noteworthy that all five of these states rank among the worst in terms of child well-being.
Senator Regina Barrow, the bill's author, emphasized that the creation of a State Child Ombudsman would provide a voice for the child and significantly impact the state's approach to child welfare. Barrow believes that the proposed office would add more layers of oversight and ensure better outcomes for Louisiana's children.
While advocates for children generally support the idea of an ombudsman, some have raised concerns about the bill's proposed setup. Placing the ombudsman in the governor's office, serving at the governor's pleasure, raises questions about independence. Moira O'Neill, the first Child Advocate in New Hampshire, suggests that an ombudsman should be under the control of the Legislature, similar to Louisiana's legislative auditor, to ensure effective oversight of agencies and leaders.
The ombudsman's jurisdiction would extend beyond the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) and the Office of Juvenile Justice (OJJ). The proposed law states that the ombudsman should also address issues related to juvenile justice, child care, foster care, and access to physical and mental health treatment.
To establish the Office of the State Child Ombudsman, the state would allocate an average of $295,000 annually from the general fund over the next five years. The ombudsman's salary would be $147,231, with an administrative assistant earning $75,996. The remaining funds would cover operating expenses, professional services, and equipment.
Creating an effective data collection system is considered one of the crucial initial steps for the ombudsman. Tracking and analyzing complaints and identifying trends can guide future policy changes. The ultimate goal is to have an ombudsman in each region of the state, serving as a trusted advocate who can connect children and their parents or guardians with necessary resources.
The potential benefits of an ombudsman also extend to assisting families in navigating various agencies' programs and fostering better collaboration between agencies. While the staffing outlook for DCFS has improved with reduced vacancies, heavy caseloads remain a challenge.
One potential limitation of the proposed law is the uncertainty regarding the ombudsman's ability to release detailed reports about children's deaths in state custody. Existing state laws mandate confidentiality in most child welfare cases, limiting the ombudsman's discretion. While the bill allows for some disclosure in the general public interest, it still lacks a mechanism to hold the state accountable.
In addition to the ombudsman bill, Senate Bill 64, known as "Ezekiel's Law," has also emerged in response to last year's child welfare crisis. This bill proposes the creation of a "Partners in Protecting Children Subcommittee" within Louisiana's Children's Cabinet Advisory Board, named after 2-year-old Ezekiel Harry, whose tragic death highlighted failures in the system.
The passage of these bills could bring significant improvements to Louisiana's child welfare system, providing much-needed oversight, accountability, and support for vulnerable children.