Leading the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) since June 2012, Secretary Suzy Sonnier saw her work as more of a calling than a job. Charged with administering social service responsibilities that include economic stability, child support and emergency preparedness, the crux of the Department’s focus under Sonnier’s tutelage has been her passion, child welfare.
“I wake up every day determined to make children’s lives better,” said Sonnier.
Serving nearly 8,200 foster children in SFY 2015 – a number that continues to grow both in Louisiana and nationwide – while managing budget cuts of roughly 40% over the last 8 years, has only served to energize Sonnier’s creativity, not tamper it.
“The work that we do at DCFS is some of the hardest out there. It’s work that requires true compassion and understanding,” said Sonnier. “By the very nature of our department we become a part of a family’s life when things are going wrong; not when they’re going right.”
Determined to improve outcomes for Louisiana’s children Sonnier transformed the face of child welfare in Louisiana. Instituting national child welfare best practices, she propelled Louisiana in not only its own measurements, but in national rankings. In 2015, the Department was one of 10 national honorees to be awarded the Department of Health and Human Services Adoption Excellence Award and was the only state in the country to receive this award for Child Welfare Systemic Change.
Louisiana has one of the lowest percentages of children in congregate care (6%) – a known predictor of poor outcomes for children – and has been number one in the country for timeliness of adoption since 2011. As reported in “A Review of Child Welfare” a recent analysis of DCFS by The Child Welfare policy and Practice Group, “…DCFS’ performance (re: adoption) is stellar. DCFS performance has been ranked first in the nation since 2011, for which DCFS has been consistently awarded federal financial incentives.”
Most recently, DCFS achieved national reaccreditation from the Council on Accreditation. As one of only five states to have achieved this accolade Richard Klarberg – President and CEO of the Council on Accreditation told DCFS in a letter that “reaccreditation is a tremendous achievement that demonstrates that your agency is recognized as a provider that continues to successfully implement high performance standards and, as such, is delivering the highest quality services to all of its stakeholders.”
Sonnier’s strategies integrated personal interaction and outcomes based data analysis. By building a collaborative network of partners and fostering interagency cooperation, Sonnier expanded the Department’s reach and capacity for change. Meeting regularly with such partners as Louisiana Juvenile Judges, District Attorneys, law enforcement and other state agencies they were able to discuss challenges and strategize methods to improve services for our children and families.
“I’m very happy that Secretary Sonnier reestablished the relationship between the Department and the judiciary. The Department’s cooperation was essential in bridging the gap between it and the court and helped make the Family Preservation Court a reality,” said Judge Duplantier.
“Everything we do at DCFS is through a partnership. Only, with the hard work and dedication of our staff, foster families, courts, attorneys and faith-based organizations are we able to serve the people of our state.”
As Judge Adam Haney said, “Since I’ve taken the bench, Secretary Sonnier has been committed to engaging with the judiciary to ensure the wellbeing and safety of our most vulnerable children. Secretary Sonnier has been responsive to the needs of the Court and has worked hard to make sure our children are safe.”
Continuing to grow Departmental partnerships, Sonnier leveraged the legislative process to further help protect children. Specifically in 2013, DCFS was the first in the country to successfully pass legislation creating Court Ordered Safety Plans allowing courts to order parents to follow certain measures to safely keep their children in their home while allowing DCFS to legally remain involved with the family.
As Senator Ronnie Johns District 27 said, “I have had the pleasure of working very closely with Secretary Sonnier on many important issues that have affected the families and especially the children of Louisiana. She has been a tremendous leader who has been innovative in her decisions about how to best serve those in need. She has been inclusive, accessible and proactive in showing that she truly cares about those she serves. It’s been an honor to with Secretary Sonnier.”
Though child welfare is her passion, Sonnier’s accomplishments within other areas of the Department must be acknowledged. Providing economic stability and child support services to more than a fourth of Louisiana’s population, Sonnier focused on modernization efforts to improve timeliness and efficiency of services, achieving federal high performance honors.
As the entity responsible for sheltering, mass care and distribution of disaster benefits, in August 2012 Hurricane Isaac made landfall, affecting more than 21 Louisiana parishes. Having led the Department for only a few months, Sonnier was tasked with implementing DCFS’ emergency preparedness plans, successfully sheltering more than 3,200 individuals in state emergency shelters and distributing more than $103 million in disaster benefits to over 260,000 households.
“Providing essential services to those who are most vulnerable, whether it’s to children or families, is what this Department is all about.” said Sonnier. “And I’m proud to have been a part of DCFS.”