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After latest failure involving infant's overdose death, DCFS boss still has no plans to step down

1 year 7 months 5 days ago Monday, November 07 2022 Nov 7, 2022 November 07, 2022 7:13 PM November 07, 2022 in News
Source: WBRZ

BATON ROUGE - The head of the Department of Children and Family Services said she has no plans to resign despite mounting frustration with the agency after the death of 1-year-old J'ahrei Paul, the second child to die from a drug overdose under the agency's watch in the past six months.

During a news conference Monday morning, a week after Paul's death, Secretary Marketa Walters told Chief Investigator Chris Nakamoto that she has no plans to step down as the head of DCFS. 

"I serve at the pleasure of the governor, and as long as the governor and I are in lockstep about this I will be right here," Walters said. 

Governor John Bel Edwards' spokesman did not respond to our requests for a comment pertaining to Walters' statements.

During that news conference, DCFS blamed the latest child's overdose death on a lack of staffing and overloaded case workers. The problem is so dire in Baton Rouge, DCFS is having to ask neighboring parishes for help.

"Most of those cases, we've had to ask Livingston Parish to pick up for us," Dr. Rhenda Hodnett, Assistant Secretary of Child Welfare said. "We are carrying some of them, but Livingston is picking up some of those that have longer priority response."

DCFS said the agency has seen a 32-percent increase in cases over the past six months compared to the same time period in 2021. There are currently more than 400 job openings at DCFS and 173 of those are in the child welfare section. That's the section responsible for keeping children safe.

Paul was pronounced dead after being rushed to a hospital Oct. 31, and the coroner's office revealed days later that the infant died from fentanyl poisoning. It's still unclear as of Monday how the drug ended up in the child's system. A police investigation is ongoing.

Ja'Mira Paul, the boy's mother, was jailed in Texas at the time of her child's death and tells WBRZ her son was in the care of his father, Charles Lee. She says Lee called a family member after J'ahrei fell ill on Halloween, and the infant's grandmother had someone drive to Lee's apartment to pick up the child and take him to a hospital.

After J'ahrei was dropped off at the hospital, family claims Lee left Ja'Mira's other two children with their aunt and then disappeared. 

Police have not said whether they're looking at the infant's father as a suspect in the case.

On Saturday, DCFS addressed reports that they'd already been warned about the child's living conditions prior to his death. The department acknowledged that it received a complaint about the boy's mother, who was still in jail, using marijuana around her kids but said there were no other reports of abuse.

The department also said it previously investigated Ja'Mira Paul for using marijuana while she was pregnant but claims there were no reports suggesting that J'ahrei was in imminent danger before his death.

While looking into J'ahrei's case, DCFS says the supervisor working it submitted a notice about her impending resignation just days before the infant died. The department also noted that worker's manager was on sick leave Oct. 28, the same day the employee reportedly sent an email saying she'd had no contact in J'ahrei's case. That manager returned to work Oct. 31, the day J'ahrei died. 

On Friday, the WBRZ Investigative Unit learned that at least 70 employees had left the child welfare section since June, when another child died from a fentanyl overdose. In that case, DCFS had received at least three warnings that the toddler was in danger after he nearly died from two separate overdoses while living in a drug-filled home. Despite those complaints, that child died from a third overdose, leading to his mother's arrest about a month later. 

At the time, the agency largely blamed staffing problems for the failure. 

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