DCFS again at crossroads as director leaves amid child deaths

Bobby Cagle’s sudden resignation as head of the Los Angeles County Department of Child and Family Services this week crowns a tumultuous time for the nation’s largest child welfare agency and will force leaders of the county to grapple with major political questions about how social workers respond to reports of abuse and neglect and choose to intervene in families.

DCFS comes under scrutiny following a series of high-profile deaths and injuries of children under its watch, including a 4-year-old foster boy who was hospitalized in a coma last month.

The agency is still grappling with the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, when teachers and other obligatory journalists have had much less contact with children and court closures have led to a surge in the backlog of cases.

And Cagle’s exit, which takes effect Dec.31, comes as county leaders and a range of civic groups have stepped up calls on DCFS to address racial and ethnic disparities, including an overrepresentation of black children in families. reception. Although 7.5% of children in LA County are black, they represent over 27% of children in foster care.

County leaders must find a new director to oversee a sprawling staff of 9,000 in around 20 offices and a budget of more than $ 2.4 billion – but also carry out reforms amid a tangle of political pressure and civic.

“This is not a job for the faint of heart,” said Charity Chandler-Cole, executive director of CASA Los Angeles, which pairs court-appointed attorneys with foster children. Chandler-Cole described the agency as at a crossroads: “There is so much to consider with the stories of our past. There is a lot of attention on how LA County and the DCFS will respond to these challenges of fairness and racial justice.

She added: “I felt Bobby was doing this and I was ready to support all of these initiatives – for me it was shocking to see him walk away.”

Cagle declined an interview request through a DCFS spokesperson. A person familiar with his thinking who spoke on condition of anonymity described him as “exhausted” and said his departure was not compelled by any particular case.

DCFS did not provide any explanation as to when to resign, but in a statement, the agency said it plans to enter the private sector after three decades in public service.

“It has been an honor to lead this important work and to serve alongside you, the thousands of dedicated LA DCFS County Child Protection staff,” Cagle wrote in an email to staff on Tuesday. evening.

“It’s a bit of a shock to me,” said Michael Nash, the retired judge who heads the LA County Child Welfare Office. Nash noted that Cagle served four years, which is more than many of his predecessors: “It looks like the life expectancy of directors is not that great. It reflects how hard the job is and how important it is. The risks are so high – we are dealing with the most vulnerable in our population, our children. “

David Green, a social worker who is also president of Service Employees International Union Local 721, which represents more than 9,000 DCFS employees among its 95,000 members, said he viewed Cagle as a partner and collaborator, especially during the pandemic.

Green recalled being in “constant communication” with Cagle as they sought to protect DCFS personnel – who were still making site visits and in need of essential protective equipment – as well as vulnerable families.

“He grew up in the child welfare system and was a social worker and hadn’t forgotten he was a social worker in his style of leadership and outreach,” Green said. “We are sorry he left. “

Cagle took over as head of the LA County Child Protective Services Appliance in 2017 after leading Georgia’s Division of Family and Child Services.

At the time, DCFS was in shock at the death of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez, the boy from Palmdale who was abused and tortured by his mother and boyfriend.

Gabriel’s case seemed to crystallize the county’s failures in caring for vulnerable children. Four LA County social workers have been charged with child abuse and forgery of public documents in connection with their work on the Gabriel case, although an appeals court dismissed the case last year .

Cagle also stepped into the role without the full support of the five members of the Supervisory Board. The board had voted 3-2 in favor of Cagle’s appointment, with then-supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and supervisor Janice Hahn preferring a lawyer who worked in the Obama administration, JooYeun Chang.

When Cagle took over, he faced a growing backlog in the approval process for foster parents and caregivers.

“He has withdrawn his mandate for manpower on the bridge and has done a good job in reducing the backlog considerably,” Nash said.

Supervisor Sheila Kuehl praised Cagle’s dedication to developing programs for LGBTQ youth, implementing policies to keep children with parents, and developing a strategic plan that the agency will use even after she leaves.

Cagle also advocated for foster parents and caregivers to receive sufficient funding early in the process, Nash said.

Chandler-Cole credited Cagle for his support and listening, and acknowledging the grievances people of color have against the DCFS.

“He didn’t get defensive and didn’t find excuses,” said Chandler-Cole. “He was constantly listening and he wanted to be part of the change. “

Other high-profile child deaths continued to plague the agency and highlighted opportunities missed by child protection workers and agency staff. In 2018, 10-year-old Anthony Avalos died after suffering torture and prolonged abuse. The following year, 4-year-old Noah Cuatro died although DCFS social workers obtained a court order to remove Noah from his parents’ home, but decided not to execute him.

A Times / UC Berkeley investigation earlier this year revealed major red flags in the agency’s handling of Noah Cuatro, who was killed despite a life of surveillance and intervention by social workers.

Support for Cagle appeared to ebb this fall following the alleged abuse of a boy by his adoptive mother. The boy, identified as Andres F., was hospitalized with life-threatening injuries, and his adoptive mother, Gabriela Casarez, 26, was charged with two counts of child abuse and one count of assault leading to coma or paralysis.

LA County officials have called for an investigation into the DCFS ‘handling of the case as well as how social workers overcame cultural and language barriers. The boy and his birth mother speak an indigenous Mayan language, and his aunt told journalist Alberto Godinez that social workers failed to communicate effectively with the family before removing him and placing him in foster care.

Hahn notably criticized the agency after details of the case became public.

“This story is appalling,” Hahn said earlier this month, calling for an investigation. “We were supposed to protect this boy when we took him away from his family. “

No board member agreed to an interview on DCFS and they were cautious in their comments on Cagle and instead highlighted the qualities of the next DCFS leader: a stable home, ”said supervisor Kathryn Barger.

Supervisor Hilda Solis said she wanted a director “who exemplifies the linguistic and cultural diversity of the residents of this county, understands how to prevent abuse and neglect, and is committed to addressing inequities in our protection system. childhood “.

“I expect the contribution of those with lived experience to be at the forefront of this process, allowing us to recruit a director who is reinventing what it means to serve children and family,” said Solis in a press release.

Former LA County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said the practical challenges of the job were compounded by broader pressures. “The problem is that the county should step into the breach caused by the unraveling of the social fabric of our country,” he said.

“If a parent or parents or guardians can’t do the job, imagine why a government agency can step in and become a surrogate parent, it’s not designed to be successful.”

He also highlighted the five supervisors who oversee the role, rather than a single general manager.

“Each supervisor has a different philosophy or most supervisors have different philosophies of how to handle things, and unfortunately politicians when things go wrong they look for someone to blame,” Yaroslavsky said.

Following Cagle’s departure at the end of December, his second-in-command, Ginger Pryor, will take over on an interim basis. A retired DCFS deputy director Dawna Yokoyama was also due to return as interim deputy chief director as LA County searches for a new director.

Times writer James Queally contributed to this report.

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