Paul Murphy / Eyewitness News
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- A scathing state audit points to a long list of challenges for the state agency charged with investigating allegations of child abuse and neglect in Louisiana.

According to a legislative auditor's report released to the public Monday morning, the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services does not always follow its own policies in assigning urgent child and family abuse cases top priority.

The audit shows 2,600 cases that should have been referred to child protection investigation since 2009 were instead referred to a lower-risk program, and of the cases where response time was slow by DCFS, 104 involved sexual abuse and three involved the death of a child.

'There are small times when where people do have more cases than we would like for them to have,' said DCFS Secretary Suzy Sonnier. 'Our goal is that we look at case load every day. It's not easy to just move staff around.'

DCFS responded to more than 130,000 cases of child abuse and neglect with 192 child fatalities over the past four years. There were close to 12,000 cases in the New Orleans area alone.

Sonnier said removing a child from his or her home is a tough call for her case workers.

'They are often going in and doing what I would truly say is one of the most traumatic things that a person can have to do is to look at a child and determine are they safe to stay here. If I remove them, what does that mean for their future?'

Paulette Carter from the Children's Bureau of New Orleans said the number of cases suggest the problem is larger than the challenges at DCFS.

'That speaks to me, that as a community, we really need to address the abuse. We need to actually put in some preventive measures,' said Carter. 'Are there parenting programs that we can put in place so we never get to the point where DCFS is actually having to investigate?'

Carter said churches, teachers and neighbors all have to do their part in protecting children from abuse.

'I think we as a community really need to look across the systems to make sure that we've got those assessment pieces in places, we have a policy in place that really contribute to the greater safety of our children,' said Carter.

DCFS caseworkers and stakeholders referenced in the audit stated that decreased staff, higher caseloads, turnover and lack of available services affect the department's ability to perform its tasks.

On a positive note, the report says for the most part, the department has decreased its response time for complaints from more than seven days to less than three.

'I do believe that our system is a strong one and that we will continue to operate that way,' said Sonnier.

The audit also made a series of recommendation to improve efficiency at DCFS.

Sonnier said some positive changes have already been implemented.

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