Devastated Agency Strains To Shift Toward Preservation

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For decades, Marketa Gautreau railed against the quality of service provided to Louisiana’s abused and neglected children as CEO of Prevent Child Abuse Louisiana. “I made a lot of noise about what [the] children’s system used to be like,” she says.

In 2004, incoming Gov. Kathleen Blanco asked Gautreau to put her money where her mouth was and head the state’s Office of Community Services (OCS). But her reform agenda went out the window when Katrina and Rita scattered the state’s caseload, staff and foster parents.

Perhaps no state child- and youth-serving agency was more devastated by Katrina than OCS, which handles child welfare services under the Department of Social Services. It had the most daunting task in tracking down its current caseload. The number of foster families had already plummeted before the storm, particularly in the agency’s Greater New Orleans region, and since Katrina the agency has lost 43 percent of its residential bed space in the affected areas. Around the state, many fear that the mental health issues surrounding post-Katrina life will emerge as a major problem for families and children.

Unlike her colleagues in justice and education, Gautreau will have to face those facts while dealing with a total caseload that has increased since the storm. “I don’t feel the opportunity for change the same way juvenile justice might right now, because my numbers are going up, and I don’t have enough foster care placements to take care of the increase,” Gautreau says. “It’s been a stress in the system. The immediate future may not be pleasant.”

Nevertheless, the director says, she intends to use OCS relief money to make a systemic change made even more necessary in Katrina’s wake: putting more of the agency’s resources into family preservation.

Finding Scattered Youth

“How do you manage a caseload … that’s absent?”

That’s what Gautreau contemplated in a phone conversation with Youth Today soon after Katrina. (See “Youth Work in Hurricanes,” October 2005.) OCS had about 5,000 kids in its system before Katrina; about 1,900 of them evacuated to other parts of Louisiana or to other states. The task of finding them was made more difficult by the absence of hundreds of displaced agency youth workers.

The staff in Baton Rouge began by tracking down scattered caseworkers and using whatever numbers and contacts they had to find the children assigned to them. OCS created a hotline for foster parents to call and check in, and advertised the number on television and at shelters in Louisiana and Texas. Through the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children, other state child welfare agencies agreed to take remaining Louisiana youth into their systems.

Months later, the agency had ascertained the location of every single child. Gautreau says she was “astonished” by how few children remained out of state: only 165 of the nearly 1,900 who initially left.

The system has already seen its foster care caseload increase substantially. The number of foster children statewide increased from 4,433 in 2005 to 5,050 this year. The number in Greater New Orleans dropped from 765 to 646, a relatively small dip, considering the city’s overall population drop from just over 450,000 before Katrina to an estimated 225,000 this summer.

Finding Places for Them

Compounding the problem is Louisiana’s dearth of foster homes. Gautreau inherited 4,119 foster homes in 2004. Two months before Katrina, the number was down to 2,627, a drop of nearly 40 percent. Gautreau offers no explanation for the drop. “I’m only interested in fixing it,” she says.

The reduction forced Gautreau to “bend all the rules” once it was time to deal with post-Katrina placements. “If you are certified to care for four children, you might have seven right now,” she says.

OCS has been making up for the loss of foster parents by placing more youth in emergency shelters, supervised apartments and residential facilities. That will be more difficult now, as the agency remains 79 beds short of its pre-Katrina total of 686. All of that loss is from homes in the Greater New Orleans area.

Even those New Orleans providers that are functional have an additional headache in finding workers. Dennis Dillon, who runs Girls and Boys Town of New Orleans, has his 16-bed emergency shelter in the French Quarter and his 16-bed girls shelter on the city’s west bank ready to go – except for the staff.

“We should be back at full capacity,” Dillon says, but he can’t fill the emergency center until he can lure more staff. He has significantly raised starting salaries and aggressively advertised jobs online and in surrounding parishes. He expects Girls and Boys Town’s undamaged facilities to be fully staffed and operational by this fall.

Catholic Charities once provided 100 beds and only recently was able to make 50 available.
For the moment, the low youth population has offset what would otherwise be a placement crisis. “I don’t know that we have enough beds,” Gautreau says, “but we’re not awful right now without them.”

Moving Toward Reform

Not that Gautreau minds a lower number of kids being directed to group settings; an over-reliance on congregate care was one of her main concerns when she ran Prevent Child Abuse Louisiana. Congregate care accounts for 18 percent of the OCS caseload and 49 percent of its budget.

“So many kids in congregate care came into care to get mental health services,” Gautreau says. “If we had better mental health provisions up front, we wouldn’t have to take them away. But our mental health system is poorly” funded.

Gautreau says she intends to use her agency’s funding earmarked for relief – $15 million added to the agency’s $250 million budget – to boost family preservation services, at the expense of group placements. For her, the provision of no-strings-attached resources is the silver lining in the storm clouds.

“What’s come out of the storm for child welfare is that because of foundation attention and relief, there’s a lot of money and expertise to do reform,” Gautreau says.

Emphasis on up-front services, she calculates, will free up even more money for family services down the line – a crucial shift, because Gautreau “has no promise of level funding” from the governor after this year.

Gautreau has appeased current congregate care contractors, such as Louisiana Methodist Children’s Home and Girls and Boys Town, by awarding them funds from the relief money to carry out family preservation services. “I don’t want to put our congregate care providers out of business, but shift them more toward home-based business,” she says.

Dillon of Girls and Boys Town worries that services for older youth might get the shortest end of the stick. “I don’t know any people running independent living programs that are back,” he says.

“We’ve never had enough services for aging out [youth]. That’s something we’re looking at,” Gautreau says. OCS’ effort to improve the independent living services is headed by a five-member task force working with the Annie E. Casey Foundation and headed by Tanya Washington, a senior associate at the foundation.

Dillon is optimistic that his program can gain from the changes in youth services resulting from the storm, if the right resources are committed. “I’m in the last quarter of my career, and I think the opportunity and need to see children get better is here at the same time,” he says. “If we can do more of what we’re good at, using old-fashioned values and new-fangled science, it could be awesome.”