LOS ANGELES — Bobby Cagle, a former foster child and caseworker, is set to take over as head of Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) starting Dec. 1 as part of ongoing efforts to curb long-running issues within the nation’s largest child welfare system.
“What having been director [of the Division of Family and Children Services] in Georgia will do is give me a leg up on the fact that that is a very large system,” Cagle said in an interview in his Atlanta office. “LA County is composed of about 10.2 million residents, almost the same size as Georgia, in a very compact area.”
His first priorities are “assessment of the system and the relationships with the key stakeholders in the community that are really vital to us being able to do the work,” he said.
The Board of Supervisors is already working on the size of caseloads and promoting kinship care, Cagle said. “The nice thing in LA is that the Board of Supervisors already arrived at the conclusion that kinship care is a vital component and that they need to move in that direction,” he said. “My encouragement will just be joining into the chorus.”
As for caseloads, “One of the things … that every system deals with is the size of caseloads,” Cagle said. “The trauma you experience in everyday work, even at a normal size caseload, is multiplied when you look at caseloads that are too large.”
Another major concern is “the number of visitations that have to occur as well as the difficulties they have with traffic and also the distance that children have to be transported to do the visitations,” he said.
“Cagle has worked in child welfare, substance abuse, early education, and social services for nearly 30 years, which has prepared him to handle critical incidents, community engagement, the courts, and thrive within the unique challenges and opportunities of working in Los Angeles County,” said Supervisor Hilda L. Solis in a statement made at Cagle’s appointment in September.
She voted in favor of appointing him in a 3-2 vote of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Cagle will succeed former director Philip Browning, who retired after serving as director for five years.
The appointment comes four years after the 2013 death of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez, who remained in his home despite several investigations into reports of abuse by his mother.
Since then, Los Angeles DCFS has continued to face challenges of mismanagement, high caseloads and a shortage of foster homes.
According to Wende Nichols-Julien, chief executive officer of Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children of Los Angeles, the most pressing issue facing Cagle is the crisis of too few foster families and family environments for children.
Los Angeles DCFS serves more than 30,000 children each month, with more than half in out-of-home placement. This number is steadily rising each year while out-of-home resources are declining. According to the Los Angeles DCFS 2015-16 Biennial Report, the number of foster care resources, including family and group homes, has dropped by 52 percent from 2005 to 2015.
“We need to meet the shortage of foster care placements head-on by recruiting but also partnering with and supporting families in an ongoing way,” said Amy Heibel, communications director of the Alliance for Children’s Rights.
As director of Los Angeles DCFS, Cagle will oversee nearly 4,800 social workers, 2,000 of whom were hired under Browning between 2015 and 2016 as part of the department’s effort to lower caseloads and reform the system following Fernandez’ death.
Cagle faced a similar situation on his appointment to his previous position as director of the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) in 2014 after two cases of children dying the previous year.
“The work is just very disturbing sometimes,” Cagle said. “You see things done to children that you cannot even imagine …When I was a caseworker and my caseload got too large, I would lose sleep. … We have to recognize that those factors are all present anywhere that you’re doing social work in the child welfare system. … We have to do things to compensate for that the best we can.”
Throughout the last three years, he has been applauded for his work at Georgia DFCS. While director, he was credited with reducing the state’s backlog of child protection investigations by ordering mandatory overtime for Georgia DFCS investigators, increasing staff and pay for frontline workers, decreasing caseloads and increasing reimbursements for foster parents.
During his leadership, Georgia also experienced a dramatic increase in the number of children in foster care, going from 7,600 in 2013 to 13,200 in 2016.
Tom C. Rawlings, director of the Georgia Office of the Child Advocate, thinks this increase is due to Cagle’s “stable and transparent” leadership, which led to a more efficient and responsive system.
“It’s not been what we’d hoped to see, but in some ways it’s been an indication of his success rather than his failure,” Rawlings said. “While we never like to see any dramatic increase because it means we’re taking too many children into care, in this case I think it actually means we have been better at recognizing cases.”
In April 2017, another high-profile child death hit Georgia DFCS when 10-year-old Kentae Williams died after reports of abuse by his adopted father. The case led to the firing of three Georgia DFCS workers, one of whom had only two years of experience on the job, a result of high caseworker turnover within Georgia DFCS, deputy division director Virginia Pryor said.
Declining to comment further on Cagle’s appointment, Solis said in her statement that her decision to approve him came from conversations with foster youth, who “told us that they wanted someone who is from foster care, is culturally competent, believes in safely keeping families together whenever possible, can build relationships in the community, and had skills and experience working across sectors.”
Solis also noted in her statement that child welfare advocates said they “wanted someone who had ‘on the ground’ experience in child welfare, a track record of public-private partnership, recognized the role of counsel and the courts, and held a genuine belief in strengthening at-risk families.”
Cagle is noted for his work with early childhood education as former commissioner of Bright From the Start: Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning. He has also expressed understanding of issues affecting immigrant children, LGBTQ youth and homelessness within the child welfare system.
“[Cagle] was the only candidate who emphasized the disproportionate harms facing LGBT youth in the system,” Solis said in her statement.
Still, the landscape Cagle faces in Los Angeles County is shaky, and undergoing recurring scrutiny.
A report by the California State Los Angeles School of Criminalistics and Criminal Justice and the Children’s Data Network at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work analyzed the connection between children touched by Los Angeles DCFS and the proportion of youth with probation involvement.
The study found that four out of five probation-involved youth in Los Angeles had received at least one referral to child protective services for suspected maltreatment, many with their first referral during early childhood.
Los Angeles County has one of the largest juvenile justice systems in the country, with more than half the juvenile justice population with open mental health cases in 2015. The relationship between early childhood mental health and youth incarceration is one researchers are now investigating as reason for better child welfare practices.
“We must be mindful of the maltreatment and family instability these youth have experienced,” said Emily Putnam-Hornstein, director of Children’s Data Network and co-author of the report. “LA County is deeply engaged in prevention planning — the momentum is really tremendous. Continued leadership from DCFS under Director Cagle will be critical.”
Heibel agreed the child welfare system has an important role to play in preventative care and as a continuum of care for children and young people.
“We know that children thrive when they can maintain healthy connections and grow up in stable homes that can provide for all of their needs and help them recover from trauma,” she said. “Under Cagle’s leadership, we hope that we will continue to make progress toward supporting caregivers who step up to provide stable, loving homes for children who cannot remain with their biological parents.”
Roger Newton contributed to this story.
This story has been updated.