Louisiana FlagI love our state flag! The central image on our flag is a mother pelican pricking her breast to feed her young with her own blood. That is commitment! The image is symbolic of our state’s deep commitment to our citizens. Rather than showing a pelican in flight above the waves, our state flag is better than that. I have long admired the wisdom of those who chose to place the pelican of state in the midst of her nest, surrounded by her young, giving of herself to ensure their health.

The lesson is in our flag, Louisiana: We must be willing to prick our hearts for our children.

It is a great image. Unfortunately, we know our flag is not always symbolic of the reality of Louisiana’s child welfare services. In fact, the availability of services to promote the well-being of our children is a function of gubernatorial interest. This should not be.

Today in Louisiana, under Governor John Bel Edwards’ administration, there are clear signs Louisiana’s child welfare system is in a much needed recovery mode. Last week, First Lady Donna Edwards launched the “Louisiana Fosters” initiative seeking to bolster support for foster children and their caregivers in Louisiana.

The Louisiana Fosters website is located at http://louisianafosters.la.gov

This is the first time I recall a First Lady and Governor giving so much attention to children who have been largely ignored. (Some may disagree that Louisiana’s children have been ignored by state government, but history and consequences tell the full story. Perhaps the attention children’s issues receive is relative, but I do know Louisiana holds the distinction of averaging 49th in the nation for three decades when ranked on child well-being.)

Governor Edwards requested an audit of the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor. The report has been released by Mr. Daryl Purpera, Legislative Auditor. Mr. Purpera’s report confirms what many who work in child welfare have suspected about the impact of the previous administration’s dismantling of Louisiana’s Department of Children and Family Services. (The audit report, Oversight of the Foster Care Program, is available online as a Summary Report and the 43-page Full Report.)

The report, submitted to the President of our Senate and to the Speaker of the Louisiana House of Representatives, is offered, in Mr. Purpera’s words, with “the hope this report will benefit you in your legislative decision-making process.” I encourage all of Louisiana’s Senators and Representatives to read it, understand it, and remember it when making decisions about our state’s responsibility for our children.

I want to point out that there is additional information which must also inform Louisiana’s legislative decision-making processes related to children, child welfare, and child well-being. In addition to the damage done to DCFS during the previous gubernatorial administration, the negative impact upon Louisiana’s children was much broader than the weakening of DCFS.

Any legislator seeking to understand the impact of the previous gubernatorial administration on Louisiana’s child welfare system must also know that DCFS was not the only child welfare service which took a devastating blow. It is important to know that DCFS’ services designed to care for abused and neglected children were decimated. But legislators must also know that Louisiana’s most important prevention and early intervention services for children were simply eliminated.

I am referring to the elimination of Louisiana’s Early Childhood Supports and Services program (ECSS).

While it existed, Louisiana’s Early Childhood Supports and Services program (ECSS) was covered by the New York Times and “20/20”. Louisiana’s ECSS program was referenced in professional journals, textbooks and national conferences as being a role model for other states. These ECSS centers were located in some of Louisiana’s most desperate areas.

Louisiana’s model intervention for children was completely eliminated by the previous administration in a mid-year budget cut on December 14, 2012. The Jindal administration pulled the plug on this child welfare success to avoid spending $2.8 million. (Two years later, Governor Jindal announced Louisiana would spend $4.5 million to improve a race track facility in New Orleans. Both of these actions are documented in Louisiana’s newspapers like The Advocate. Governors do what they will.)

That “Governors do what they will” is precisely the predicament Louisiana’s child welfare system faces tomorrow. Today, we have a Governor who understands the importance of caring for our children. However, unless the Governors who follow Governor Edwards are willing to prioritize the needs and lives of children over racetrack bleachers, then Louisiana’s children and the services necessary for their care are at perpetual risk.

In Louisiana, the well-being of our children is left to the whims of political happenstance. We have never had the political will to plan permanently. Today, no one can predict what services will be strengthened or eliminated by our next Governor.

Looking into the future, in my opinion, the best case for Louisiana’s children is that the Governors who follows Governor Edwards are just as passionate about ensuring we care for our children. If that does not happen, the next best hope Louisiana’s children have is that our next Governor will simply ignore the child welfare initiatives she or he inherits and allows them to continue without interruption. The worst case scenario for our children will occur if the next Governor deprioritizes the needs of children and whittles away at the services designed to ensure their care. I contend we cannot go back to the past.

To protect Louisiana’s children from the political whims of our Governors, our children require that Louisiana develop a comprehensive, long-term plan for child well-being that transcends any single Governor’s administration. Last week, immediately after First Lady Donna Edwards announced “Louisiana Fosters”, some of us in the room looked at each other and asked, “How do we ensure this initiative lasts?” It is common knowledge among those who work on behalf of children that Louisiana’s children are always at political risk.

Those who have worked in child welfare long enough, know that each Governor has the authority to remake the child welfare system in his or her own image. This is dangerous. We know from Louisiana’s history that critical services for children can be turned off like a light switch by the Governor’s office.

We must always have a robust Department of Children and Family Services. We must also have robust early intervention and prevention services throughout Louisiana like the Early Childhood Supports and Services program and the expansion of Nurse Family Partnership. Louisiana, we must find a way for all of us to commit to a comprehensive plan for child well-being that transcends the brevity and will of our gubernatorial administrations.

The lesson is in our flag, Louisiana: We must be willing to prick our hearts for our children. We must be the Pelican!

Rick Wheat, President and CEO
Louisiana United Methodist Children and Family Services