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DCFS leader defends turning down summer food aid


DCFS leader defends turning down summer food aid

Feb 28, 2024 | 7:00 am ET
By Greg LaRose
DCFS leader defends turning down summer food aid
A sign noting the acceptance of electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards that are used by state welfare departments to issue benefits is displayed at a grocery store on Dec. 4, 2019, in Oakland, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

In what he called an “emotional” response, Louisiana’s top family welfare official told state lawmakers he would have accepted summer food assistance for children from the federal government had they provided him with the money needed to run the program.

David Matlock, secretary of the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), said his bigger priority is addressing a shortage of child abuse investigators. He appeared before the state House Health and Welfare Committee in an introductory meeting Tuesday ahead of the regular legislative session that starts March 11.

It was Matlock’s first meeting with legislators since Gov. Jeff Landry appointed him to his cabinet in January — and his first in a public setting since he turned down $71 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) program.

It would have cost DCFS $3.6 million to administer the program, according to the agency. It would have provided an extra $40 monthly for groceries per qualifying child in June and July with a cap of $120 per family. The USDA has said the Summer EBT program would have reached some 594,000 children in Louisiana, one of 14 states that turned down the assistance.   

Matlock told the committee if he were given $3.6 million, he would use the money to hire some 30 new investigators and supervisors for the DCFS child welfare program. If lawmakers told him to spend the money on food assistance, Matlock said he would follow through as directed.

“Right now, you’re asking for more bricks and to go get our own straw. We can’t do it,” Matlock said. “So give me $3.6 million, and I will gladly accomplish that mission.”

The department currently faces a $30 million “internal fiscal cliff” when calculating the money required to reach its staffing needs, the secretary said. 

What it would have cost Louisiana to provide summer food benefits for poor children

Rep. Joe Stagni, R-Kenner, broached the Summer EBT topic after Matlock’s chief of staff, Toby Comeaux, provided a department overview to the health committee. The representative stressed DCFS has allies in the Legislature to help the secretary address its staffing and attribution issues. 

“You have partners up here and it makes it, in my mind, even more indefensible that we would turn down (the USDA money),” Stagni said. He told Matlock he had hoped the secretary would have said DCFS intends to take part in the program next summer.

According to math Stagni shared, Louisiana actually receives $1.50 to $1.60 for every dollar Louisiana draws in federal food assistance. As a result, the state is actually turning down in the neighborhood of $130 million.

Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services Secretary David Matlock reacts with his hands over his mouth to comments from House Health and Welfare Committee Chairman Dustin Miller during a hearing Tuesday, Feb. 27. 2024, at the State Capitol.
Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services Secretary David Matlock reacts to comments from House Health and Welfare Committee Chairman Dustin Miller during a hearing Tuesday, Feb. 27. 2024, at the State Capitol. (Legislature video feed)

“In my mind, we’re talking about spending $128 million here in this state,” Stagni said. “But we’re willing to take $3 million to go take care of a border the federal government is supposed to patrol.”

The House of Representatives has approved, at the governor’s request, spending $3 million in state funds to send 150 members of the Louisiana National Guard to the Texas border with Mexico over the next three months. Stagni voted to approve the appropriations bill that also included money for other criminal justice proposals.  

Lawmakers have tried to compel state officials to accept the Summer EBT aid, but legislative leaders have said the request falls outside of the parameters of the ongoing special session on criminal justice policy. 

Through existing food aid programs, Matlock said Louisiana will provide 1.2 million more meals this summer and 3 million more than the summer before the COVID-10 pandemic.

The secretary touted existing programs that provide “grab-and-go” meals to those in need, instead of adding electronic benefits to debit cards. Drawing on his background of nearly three decades as a juvenile court judge, Matlock described situations where grandparents bear the cost of feeding childrens while parents without custody receive the benefits.  

Matlock prefaced his explanation for turning down the Summer EBT resources by illustrating the extent to which his child welfare division is overworked. Based on his research, child welfare investigators nationally average 10 cases per month. In East Baton Rouge Parish, he said the caseload is 98 per investigator.

Out of 21 hires in the child welfare division in the past 12 months, Matlock said 17 have already left DCFS. Another 300 employees are needed to adequately respond to child abuse complaints, he added.    

In the face of that need, Matlock said it’s difficult to ask his staff to shoulder the additional burden of administering the summer food program.

“We are muzzling the oxen while they’re threshing grain,” the secretary said.