Work begins early for Louisiana’s new ombudsperson on child abuse response
Retired Baton Rouge juvenile Judge Kathleen Richey begins her new job Monday as Louisiana’s first state child ombudsperson, leading an office that will review policy to promote the best interests of children and handle complaints when public and private agencies fall short.
Even before she starts officially, Richey has already made appointments to meet with two women extremely displeased with the state’s response to sexual abuse allegations involving their respective children and former husbands.
Both women spoke at Wednesday’s meeting of the Louisiana Senate Health and Welfare Committee, which has spent the past several months scrutinizing the state Department of Children and Family Services. DCFS was made aware of abuse allegations in separate cases that ended with the deaths of three young children last summer. It prompted the exit of the agency’s leader and the ongoing legislative review of the department’s policies, staffing levels and funding.
Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, authored the bill to create the state Office of State Child Ombudsman, which is under the Louisiana Legislative Auditor to remain independent of the executive branch where DCFS resides. Legislative Auditor Mike Waguespack introduced Richey to lawmakers Wednesday.
“I don’t know if I’m excited or if I’m overwhelmed,” Richey told the committee. That was about two hours before the two mothers shared emotional public testimony to members, some of whom were reluctant to let them specifically criticize DCFS and current Secretary Terri Ricks.
Ricks attended to provide an update on the department’s operations, including progress in handling child abuse complaints.
Legislative Auditor officials reviewed their recent report on the DCFS intake system for child abuse complaints. They found more than a third of callers to Louisiana’s child abuse hotline either reached a busy line or hung up before someone could answer.
Ricks said a lack of personnel is at the heart of the issue, as it is with many of the problems plaguing the department. The DCFS intake staff numbered 64 employees as of fiscal year 2022, and Ricks said 14 more people are needed to adequately staff its phone lines. She noted the department was forced to cut 500 employees during former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s tenure from 2008-2016.
Since last summer’s tragedies and the ensuing focus on DCFS, Ricks said more than 200 employees have been hired with more than half joining the Child Services division. Although the new staff is helpful, the secretary acknowledged it takes time for them to become acclimated with the workload.
“It takes a while to build those muscles, to build that group,” Ricks said, “but we’re on the way.”
Ahead of the public comment portion of Wednesday’s meeting, chairman Sen. Fred Mills, R-Parks, advised speakers not to share identifying information about child abuse victims.
When a woman started sharing details about the alleged sexual abuse of her 3-year-old daughter, Mills interrupted multiple times to let her know she could be putting herself and the committee in questionable legal territory.
When the woman and her sister brought up specific problems in their interactions with DCFS, Sen. Jay Luneau, D-Alexandria, instructed them that the committee’s purview only involved policy decisions.
The Illuminator is choosing not to identify the women to preserve the privacy of the child in question.
Sen. Beth Mizell, R-Franklinton, spoke up when she felt the committee was sending the women down yet another potential dead end.
“We could do nothing but hit a brick wall” if the women weren’t provided an avenue to have their concerns addressed, Mizell said.
After Luneau and the women had more back-and-forth discussion, which at times grew testy, committee member Sen. Gerald Boudreaux, D-Lafayette, suggested the women speak with Richey, who stayed for the meeting, and make plans to follow up with her. The same option was offered to a second woman who complained about her treatment from DCFS staff in her public comments.
Covington attorney Richard Ducote has spent more than four decades representing child welfare clients and has helped craft state law on the topic. In his public comments, he urged the committee to push for continued reform of DCFS, citing the abbreviated testimony of the women before him.
“This is the kind of stuff that gets convictions in criminal court,” Ducote said.