May 9, 2017 08:25 AM

A Senate bill to fight child exploitation is on a collision course with the budget passed last week by the House.

The Senate's Judiciary A Committee was scheduled to consider SB54 by Franklinton Sen. Beth Mizell when it convened Tuesday morning. The bill addresses the issue of child exploitation and would give the Department of Children and Family Services a central role in responding to the needs of these victims of a broad range of activities including sexual and labor abuses.

The abuses provoke a moral outrage that provides the impetus behind legislation like Mizell's. Crafted by the Louisiana Law Institute, the bill provides that children who are found to be victims of abuse should be placed in a shelter care facility if the child has been exploited. It provides that children of exploitation "shall be diverted into services that address their needs." The bill puts DCFS at the center of the process of finding the appropriate services to respond to the needs of these exploited children.

DCSF announced in April that human trafficking cases in Louisiana are up 25 percent. The department says there were 447 victims discovered in 2016, 201 of which were classified as juveniles; 20 of the victims were under the age of 12. You can read the full report here.

The problem is real but so are the constraints on the department's ability to respond, particularly going into the next fiscal year. During the House floor debate on HB1, Rep. Malinda White of Bogalusa argued that eliminating positions in departments like DCFS translates into cuts in services. She also argued that low pay and large case loads in the department lead to high turnover which drives up training costs in the department. The majority of the House was unmoved by her case. The staffing cuts stuck.

Under present law, responsibility for dealing with child victims of exploitation resides with the Department of Public Safety and Corrections. Mizell's bill would shift that to DCFS at the very time the budget approved last week by the Louisiana House cuts funding for the department by $69.8 million dollars. Most of the cuts come at the expense of eliminating what are now vacant positions in the department.

According to the governor's office, HB1 eliminates 128 positions in DCFS, including 67 child welfare positions.

If Sen. Mizell's bill wins passage, the question becomes how would DCFS provide the services given it in SB54 while complying with the staffing cuts contained in HB1.

However, during this morning's committee hearing, Sen. Mizell says amendments made to her bill during the hearing will reduce if not eliminate any need for additional spending by DCFS to provide the services contained in the bill. She explains that because of the way the language of the bill was modified, DCFS will be providing services to children already under its jurisdiction.
Sen. Jay Luneau of Alexandria
Sen. Jay Luneau of Alexandria was skeptical. He called the DCFS cuts in HB1 "the elephant in the room." He said DCFS struggles to meet its responsibilities now and that the cuts would not increase the department's capacity.

"There comes a time when you can't do more with less," Luneau says. "I think that's the situation at DCFS now. These are drastic cuts. I don't know how we can expect them to meet their current responsibilities much less take on new ones."

It's a collision between conscience and budget priorities that frequently defines differences between House and Senate versions of the state budget in each session.

The Senate Finance Committee is scheduled to begin hearings on the HB1 later this week. These are the kinds of issues they'll be grappling with as they rework the budget to account for its impact beyond the numbers on the line items.

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