During its Fall meeting this week, our Board of Directors reviewed and updated the organization’s By-Laws. The Board established an intentional focus on Louisiana child advocacy. To section 1.4 of the By-Laws, “Objectives and Purposes,” the Board added item (g) “Maintain an organized program of public advocacy to benefit Louisiana’s children, families, and communities.”

I believe doing this and doing it well will be our organization’s best opportunity to help effect broad improvements in the well-being of Louisiana’s children.

Last year we began gathering information to create an online resource to support public advocacy on behalf of Louisiana’s children. The new website is at https://www.LouisianaChildAdvocacy.com

The Louisiana Child Advocacy website is not yet officially “live.” Before officially turning it up, we are working on additional “how to” information to help parents who must advocate for their children. We will announce this new website in November.

LouisianaChildAdvocacy.com is a small step. During our Spring 2023 Board meeting next April, our Board of Directors will review a comprehensive plan for a public advocacy program on behalf of Louisiana’s children, families, and communities.

We know Louisiana is a great state. We have exceptional food, fun festivals, and a lot of sports.

Louisianans are also aware of the gaps in services our children require. Unfortunately, compared to the documented needs in our state, Louisiana offers children too little of everything to support their well-being. Too few community resources, school-based resources, foster homes, residential treatment services … ask yourself, do we offer too much of anything our children require?

Louisiana’s Children Require More Child Advocacy Work

Louisiana also has too little child advocacy work – especially given the chronic state of child well-being. We must do more child advocacy work, but we cannot stop after we make progress. Here’s why: surprisingly, the states which historically rank highest for child well-being maintain robust advocacy services!

One could expect that states ranked in the top five for child well-being would not need strong advocacy programs. But the opposite seems true; the best states for children continue pushing for their well-being! Even after child well-being improves, intense child advocacy work is required to maintain the gains!

So, good child advocacy provides hard bumps to encourage a state to make positive changes for children – and it does more. Effective child advocacy continues urging leaders at every level along a path of improvement, constantly nudging, educating, and pressuring rational decision-making on behalf of children.

We understand that Louisiana is an impoverished state, but like in every state, our governors and legislatures have directed state revenues to their chosen priorities. Given Louisiana’s chronic history of miss-prioritizing children’s needs, Louisiana’s child advocates must actively educate all our elected officials and support their good decisions about meeting the needs of our children.

We know Louisiana is a state constantly recovering from disasters that interrupt business, neighborhoods, family life, and normal childhood development. These disasters create documented needs for mental health care for children.

I contend that Louisiana’s longest and steady-state crisis is poor child well-being. How we care for our children now is creating Louisiana’s future.

So, notice this rule of history at work against Louisiana’s children: Current conditions result from previous decisions. Because Louisiana fails to provide sufficient mental health services in communities, the news reports a high rate of juvenile delinquency.

Child Well-being Deficits Reported in This Week’s News

1) Because Louisiana has failed for decades to maintain its juvenile (literally, “child”) detention facilities, the buildings are inadequate for the needs of children in the custody of The Office of Juvenile Justice (“OJJ”). So this week, with detention centers incapable of containing children and keeping them safe, Louisiana began placing its most violent children in the former, repainted Death Row at Angola.

Perhaps doing this is the only immediate solution to OJJ’s current problems. Still, every child placed in Angola will leave detention with the street credibility gained by saying honestly, “I’ve done time at Angola.” OJJ’s efforts are a bandaid and not progress.

As Jim Beam shared in The American Press about the final ruling in the recent lawsuit filed to prevent the placement of children in Angola,

“OK, what did Chief U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick say in her 64-page ruling? She said the plan is “untenable” and “disturbing,” but doesn’t appear to violate federal law.

“While locking children in cells at night at Angola is untenable, the threat of harm these youngsters present to themselves, and others, is intolerable,” she wrote. “The untenable must yield to the intolerable.”

See Juvenile Justice Making News – Jim Beam, The American Press.

2) Louisiana’s Department of Children and Family Services struggles with too few staff and too little funding. This week, Andrea Gallo, writing for The Advocate, asked what I believe is Louisiana’s most important question: “Why is child welfare still ‘woefully underfunded’?

Some will not like the article and may discount it as too pointed. However, I consider Ms. Gallo’s article is a must-read for child advocates because she lays out the history of our governors’ and legislatures’ decisions to inadequately fund Louisiana’s public child welfare services:

DCFS’ budget is about half as large as it was 15 years ago when adjusted for inflation, thanks to deep cuts across state government by former Gov. Bobby Jindal. The agency has struggled to keep up with reports of child abuse and neglect and has 419 vacancies, problems that have persisted years after Jindal left office.

See Louisiana is flush with cash. Why is child welfare still ‘woefully underfunded’? – Andrea Gallo, The Advocate.

3) Louisiana’s children are not alone in their decline in educational gains. The trend is happening across the nation, but this week we learned that ACT test scores for Louisiana students decreased for the fifth consecutive year.

The ACT’s Godwin described the low marks as “further evidence of longtime systemic failures that were exacerbated by the pandemic” and called for urgent action.

Poor Child Well-being is Not New but Seems Newly Visible

One could imagine that the current conditions are a consequence of the pandemic, “the great resignation,” “quiet quitting,” or any other recent social dynamic. They are not. Current times are only shining a spotlight on the status quo of child well-being in Louisiana.

For 33 years, we have lagged the nation in child well-being, holding a decades-long average rank of 49th among the states. In other words, what we see today is not new; it is visible.

With too little available for children, and too few voices calling for change, I believe one of our organization’s essential roles, beginning now and continuing into the future, is to work as energetically in child advocacy as we have in intensive residential care and therapeutic foster care.

Through the decades, we have routinely advocated for Louisiana’s children. Still, we must become more intentional. I believe Louisiana United Methodist Children and Family Services has the Mission, experience, knowledge, and charitable support necessary to do intensive child advocacy work. So, now and into the future, with the direction of our Board of Directors, we will energetically encourage progress and sustainable gains for Louisiana’s children.

Child Advocacy Requires All of Us

Finally, child advocacy is never a solo endeavor. Effective advocacy requires everyone’s voice.

As we begin creating a comprehensive child advocacy program in Louisiana, we will share information, offer tutorials on “How to Advocate for Louisiana’s Children,” and build out our advocacy resources. We will also ask you to join your voice with others who care deeply about Louisiana’s children to speak up on their behalf.

Making Louisiana better for all our children will require all our voices!

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