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Nakamoto: DCFS boss loses job amid investigations into child deaths, foster home abuse

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BATON ROUGE - Less than a day after WBRZ confronted Governor John Bel Edwards over the latest failure at the Department of Children and Family Services, the agency's leader has stepped down. 

DCFS Secretary Marketa Walters turned in her resignation Thursday, the governor's office said in a statement. It comes just days after Walters claimed she had no plans to step down

Read Walters' resignation letter here.

State Senator Regina Barrow said she does not think her resignation is enough to transform the agency.

"The whole top layer of upper management needs to go in my opinion," Barrow said.

Walters' exit comes after months of scrutiny over a series of missteps at the agency this year, two of which involved children who died from drug overdoses just months apart.

The first came in June, when 2-year-old Mitchell Robinson III swallowed fentanyl at his mother's drug-filled home and died. More than a month later, the WBRZ Investigative Unit exposed that the toddler had nearly died from drug overdoses twice before in 2022 and that DCFS had been warned that the child was in danger at least three times prior to his death.

Less than a month later, WBRZ then uncovered that a foster parent being paid by the state was accused of sexually abusing multiple children left in his care. A grandmother of one of the children said she had filed complaints with DCFS about the squalor those children were living in, but the state left the kids with their foster father.

Most recently, 1-year-old J'ahrei Paul died on Oct. 31 after he suffered a drug overdose while in his father's care. WBRZ learned that the agency had been warned about the child's living conditions at least a week before he died. It also appeared that the agency had no idea that the boy's mother was locked up in a Texas jail at the time of the infant's death. 

"I got a call on the first [of November], my baby died on Halloween," the mother told WBRZ. "When they called me, they said they were looking for me a week prior because they had a pending case on me, about me doing drugs around my kids when I was in jail in Texas."

After that failure, sources told WBRZ that at least 70 employees have left DCFS's child welfare division since the summer, when the already understaffed agency's mistakes started piling up.

"Not only were they failed by their family, but they were also failed by their safety net," Barrow said. "There's some community responsibility as well. I applaud the neighbor that called and gave the anonymous tip. They did their part but the system failed. The safety net is riddled with holes."

Walters, who was appointed by Governor Edwards, said she had no plans to step down during a news conference Monday, just a week after the infant died, claiming that she was "in lockstep" with the governor. The WBRZ Investigative Unit caught up with the governor Wednesday at an event in New Orleans after several days of silence from his office. 

Governor Edwards, who said he still had confidence in Walters as recently as September, deflected questions from Chief Investigator Chris Nakamoto about the DCFS boss's job security but admitted that the agency should have done more to intervene.

"I'm not gonna sugarcoat it. That was an absolute failure," Edwards said. "It is less clear that had the worker done what she was supposed to do timely, it would have changed the outcome. Although it certainly may have."

Deputy Secretary Terri Porche Ricks will take over as the interim leader of DCFS in Walters' place. 

Read the full statement from the governor's office below.

Today, Gov. John Bel Edwards announced that he has accepted the resignation of Department of Children and Family Services Secretary Marketa Walters. Walters, who has led the agency since 2016, has a long and distinguished career of working to improve the lives of Louisiana children and families, recognized nationally for her expertise. Her many accomplishments include implementing significant changes to the agency’s approach to foster care through the Quality Parenting Initiative and working closely with Gov. Edwards and First Lady Donna Edwards in establishing Louisiana Fosters, which provides support for foster children and parents. Under her leadership, Louisiana has had a record number of adoptions from the foster care system, with more than 5,379 children and youth being united with their forever families since Gov. Edwards’ first term in office.

“I’m grateful for Marketa’s service to our state that has been fueled by her passion to create a better future for all children and families across Louisiana,” said Gov. Edwards. “She has worked tirelessly to improve our foster care system and as a result, we have been able to help thousands of foster children find safe and nurturing permanent homes with loving adoptive families. In addition, Marketa has been on the front lines helping to provide shelter, nutrition and other much needed assistance to those directly impacted by natural disasters and the COVID-19 pandemic. Her dedication as a public servant has never wavered, and there are countless Louisianans who have benefitted from her hard work and that of the many men and women who make up the agency.

“There is no denying that child welfare agencies nationwide are facing very difficult and complex challenges and Louisiana is no exception. Those issues include staff retention, high worker caseloads, increased substance and domestic abuse, and sadly the tragic deaths of innocent children. While there are no quick solutions, it is urgent that we find new and effective ways of addressing the problems to make certain we provide the help our families need and deserve and to move our agency forward. We have engaged a third-party expert organization to do a top-to-bottom review of DCFS and make recommendations on improvements to policies, practices, and personnel that can be made to ensure we are serving the children and families of Louisiana in the manner they deserve.”

“The DCFS executive team will continue its work in evaluating and addressing the critical needs of the agency throughout this review. As Deputy Secretary, Terri Porche Ricks will serve as acting Secretary while the search for a new Secretary is being conducted. I will name a new Secretary to lead the agency as soon as possible.”

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