OUR OPINION: DSS errors show things far from perfect

Staff Writer
Gonzales Weekly Citizen

While Louisiana’s response to hurricanes Gustav and Ike was markedly better than that of hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, recent incidents show that there is still much work to be done to improve the system.

Tuesday, the state’s  Department of Social Services reported that an estimated 22,000 recipients of emergency food stamps in Louisiana received duplicate benefits by mistake. In one case, a woman who was supposed to receive $300 in benefits actually received $600. In other cases, the amounts were even higher.

DSS blamed the mistake on a “computer program error” and says it is taking steps to recover the money dispensed in error.

Good luck with that. One of the hardest things to do is recover “free money”?(well, free in a sense). Families who lost everything because of these storms are now being told they have to give money back that they planned to use to help get their lives back on track. So one can understand how that would be a difficult process.

Even before this blunder, heads began to roll after complaints rolled in about DSS’s handling of shelters and disaster emergency funds, with complainants including the Gov. Bobby Jindal himself. Issues began to come forward when Hurricane Gustav evacuees arrived at four north Louisiana shelters run by the state, only to find no  showers available. Portable showers arrived three days after the shelters opened. Another problem was that there were not enough bathrooms at the shelters to accommodate the number of evacuees. The contractor who provided the showers said the company did not receive a request from DSS until Sept. 1, the day the storm hit.

The first to go was Secretary Ann Williamson, who “resigned.” Or was she forced out? That depends on who you ask. When questioned Monday about the move, Jindal would not say if he asked Williamson to vacate the position, but said he and Williamson agreed it was time to “make a change” at the department. A day later, the agency's deputy secretary – Terri Porche Ricks – also left abruptly. Could this be a sign of an overhaul of DSS?

While we believe that no one person is at fault for the department’s response, blame ultimately trickles upward to the top positions. Our governor is a man who has high expectations of his cabinet members and their staff, and situations such as these will apparently not be tolerated. Hopefully, things will be better for the next such event.