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Lawmaker wants DCFS leadership gone amid investigations into toddler's death, foster parent's rape arrest

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BATON ROUGE - A New Orleans-area legislator wants the head of Louisiana's Department of Children and Family Services ousted in wake of multiple failures at the agency, including the death of a toddler who ate fentanyl and the sexual abuse of multiple foster kids.

"DCFS is in complete dysfunction," State Representative Jason Hughes said.

Arrests were made in two separate cases last week.

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The first involved a mother whose 2-year-old was treated for a drug overdose on three different occasions in the span of a few months. Despite hospital workers and other officials sending three separate warnings to DCFS after the child's first two near-death experiences, the toddler was left with his mom and died from a third overdose in June. 

The mother, 28-year-old Whitney Ard, was arrested last week, kicking off a cascade of questions over why the agency did nothing to remove the boy despite clear evidence that his life was in danger. Just days later, another shocking arrest would thrust DCFS back into controversy. 

Michael Hadden, a foster father to at least three different children, was arrested after his foster kids accused him of repeated sexual abuse. Those children were removed from Hadden's custody in February as an investigation into those claims unfolded. Arrest records said one of the victims was previously removed from Hadden's care in 2021 but was ultimately returned, at which point he claims the abuse continued. 

Photos show the property where the children stayed was dilapidated, and sources said they mostly lived out of a trailer connected to the crumbling house. 

Earlier this week, representatives with DCFS faced questions from lawmakers and blamed the failures on staffing shortages. 

"No one wants to do this work," Assistant Deputy Secretary Rhenda Hodnett said of the numerous vacant positions at DCFS. "Case workers are exhausted, afraid... the trauma they bear every day is incredible."

That explanation wasn't enough for some lawmakers.

"What happened with the baby was so unacceptable guys, we can't have that," Senator Regina Barrow said during Monday's hearing. "I think someone should be prosecuted. I don’t want his death to be in vain."

Another legislator, Rep. Jason Hughes in New Orleans, was so dissatisfied with the response that he took to social media Thursday calling for DCFS Secretary Marketa Walters to lose her job. 

"...morale at [DCFS] and the internal work culture must be improved drastically. I'm convinced that can only be accomplished with new leadership at the top of the agency and needs to occur ASAP!" Hughes wrote in a series of tweets. 

DCFS has said it's reviewing both cases to determine what went wrong. 

"These cases are tough. They are really hard. They are heartbreaking to us. They are heartbreaking to the community. They are heartbreaking to the legislators..." Walters said after the hearing on Monday. 

Walters said the agency is taking "disciplinary actions" in wake of the toddler's death but would not give any details on what that might be. 

"I do think the governor needs to get involved and demand a change in leadership at DCFS," Hughes said. "The question we have to ask ourselves is how many more lives do we have to lose, and how many more children have to be heinously raped."

Rep. Hughes sent the following letter to Governor John Bel Edwards on Thursday, calling for his office to step in.

Chief of Staff Cooper, and Team JBE,

I sincerely hope this finds each of you well. I know the Governor is currently out of the country on an extraordinary and important mission on behalf of our great State. I sincerely appreciate his leadership.

On yesterday, I publicly called for the resignation of DCFS Secretary Walters. Today, I have reiterated this call and have also called for the resignations of the Assistant Secretary for Child Welfare and Assistant Secretary for Family Support. In my opinion, DCFS is in a crisis and new leadership, as well as a new direction is needed.

As an appropriator, I am committed to fighting for additional funding for DCFS. However, I can only do so with new leadership in place. The problems at DCFS are too many to name, and too many children and families in our State are needlessly suffering. Money alone will not solve the issues at DCFS. The culture and structure at DCFS needs to change. We cannot wait any longer and time is not on our side.

This is not an issue I take lightly and calling for someone’s resignation is not something I take pride in. However, in my opinion, the time has passed for a fresh start.

I am happy to discuss this issue further with the Governor at any time.




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