Updated, May 8, 3:20 p.m.: This post has been updated to reflect additional appropriations to DCFS proposed in House Bill 392.

The Louisiana House is scheduled to debate next year’s $30 billion state operating budget on Thursday, and the dispute that’s making headlines involves $40 million in public education funding. But a much smaller funding shortfall has the potential to affect thousands of Louisiana’s most vulnerable children.

That’s because the budget currently includes a $2.9 million gap in funding for the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). This cut threatens the ability of an agency already strapped for resources to investigate cases of child abuse and neglect, care for foster children and oversee adoptions.

But even if DCFS receives its full requested appropriation this year, the agency’s funding would still substantially below where it was a decade ago, when the agency administered 28 percent fewer Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program cases than it currently handles and fielded 32 percent fewer reports of child abuse and neglect than it did in 2018, the most recent year for which data is available.

Cuts to the agency’s budget, instituted by Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration, have never been fully restored and have hit Louisiana’s most vulnerable children particularly hard. In 2016 The Advocate’s Bryn Stole reported that staff turnover and depletion in the department’s child welfare division have left abused and neglected children without steady contact with a caseworker and with few experienced caseworkers to hand their needs. The agency’s diminished budget puts children at serious risk of harm, as overstretched caseworkers don’t have the time or resources to check in with neighbors and grandparents or to follow up on details of a case.

The shortfall in this year’s DCFS budget first came to light last month, during hearings in the Appropriations Committee. The original version of House Bill 105, the main budget bill, included $13.1 million less than DCFS needs to meet its obligations.

When it amended the budget bill on Monday, the Appropriations Committee added language that says the agency cannot make cuts to SNAP administration. The committee also added $5.2 million in operating funds for next year’s budget. An additional $5 million of supplemental funding that cleared Appropriations on Tuesday reduced the agency’s deficit further, to $2.9 million. A long-needed expansion of foster care services to youth up to age 21, under consideration in the senate, could soon expand that deficit further, to $4.4 million. Because SNAP can’t be cut, agency officials say they would have no choice but to reduce spending on child welfare services to make up the gap.

The social services agency has faced repeated cuts in state support starting in 2009, even as demands for services have increased. To make room for the latest cuts, Secretary Marketa Garner Walters told lawmakers that the $13 million reduction would force her to end Louisiana’s participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps. While SNAP benefits are financed with federal dollars – $1.25 billion each year, which helps nearly 1 in 5 Louisianans make ends meet – half of the costs of administering the program are paid for through the state general fund.

According to a landmark study by the National Academies of Sciences, SNAP is, “by far the single most important tax and transfer program for reducing deep poverty,” and cutting SNAP would double the number of children facing extreme need. Louisiana has the worst rates of extreme child poverty of any state in the nation.

The good news is that legislators have nearly a month left in the current session to add back the money that the agency needs. After the budget leaves the House, it will be taken up by the Senate, and then the House and Senate versions will have to be reconciled before the bill can go to the governor’s desk.

As the budget debate moves forward, lawmakers should ensure that the state has enough money to administer food benefits and provide child welfare services. They should also recognize that this constitutes a bare minimum, and that Louisiana’s unacceptable level of child poverty, and the abuse and neglect that come with it, is an ongoing crisis. Louisiana must make a serious investment in protecting its children at risk of harm and its families at risk of hunger so that all of Louisiana’s children have a meaningful chance at a bright future.

 By Danny Mintz