Los Angeles Times

DCFS at crossroads with chief ’s exit

Resignatio­n of Bobby Cagle caps a period of turmoil for agency amid child deaths.

- By Matt Hamilton and Jaclyn Cosgrove

The sudden resignatio­n of Bobby Cagle as head of the Los Angeles County’s Department of Children and Family Services this week caps a tumultuous period for the nation’s largest child protection agency and will force county leaders to grapple with major policy questions around how social workers respond to reports of abuse and neglect and choose to intervene in families.

DCFS faces mounting scrutiny after a series of highly publicized deaths and injuries to children on its watch, including a 4-yearold boy in foster care who was hospitaliz­ed in a coma last month.

The agency is still contending with the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, when teachers and other mandatory reporters had far less contact with children and court closures led to a skyrocketi­ng backlog in cases.

And Cagle’s exit, which takes effect Dec. 31, comes as county leaders and an array of civic groups have intensifie­d calls for DCFS to address racial and ethnic disparitie­s, including an overrepres­entation of Black children in foster care. Although 7.5% of children in L.A. County are Black, they account for more than 27% of children in foster care.

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

“It’s not a job for the faint of heart,” said Charity Chandler-Cole, the chief executive of CASA of Los Angeles, which pairs courtappoi­nted advocates with children in foster care.

Chandler-Cole described the agency as at a crossroads: “There’s so much reckoning with the histories of our past. There’s a lot of attention into how L.A. County and DCFS is going to respond to these challenges of addressing equity and racial justice.”

She added, “I felt Bobby was doing that and was prepared to support all of these initiative­s — to me, it was shocking to see him step away.”

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

DCFS offered no explanatio­n for the timing of the resignatio­n, but in a statement the agency said that he planned to enter the private sector after three decades in public service.

“It has been an honor to lead this important work and serve alongside all of you, the thousands of committed child welfare staff in LA County DCFS,” Cagle wrote in an email to staff members Tuesday evening.

“It’s kind of a shock to me,” said Michael Nash, the retired judge who leads L.A. County’s Office of Child Protection. Nash noted that Cagle served four years, which is more than many of his predecesso­rs: “It seems like the life expectancy of directors is not that great. It’s a reflection of how tough the job is and how important it is. The risks are so high — we are dealing with the most vulnerable people in our population, our kids.”

David Green, a social worker who is also president of Service Employees Internatio­nal Union Local 721, which represents more than 9,000 DCFS staff 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 staff — who still made site visits and needed crucial protective gear — 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 leadership style and outreach,” Green said. “We are sorry to have him leave.”

Cagle took over running L.A. County’s child protective services apparatus in 2017 after leading Georgia’s Division of Family and Children Services.

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

The case of Gabriel seemed to crystalize the county’s failures in caring for vulnerable children. Four L.A. County social workers were charged with child abuse and falsifying public records in connection with their work on Gabriel’s case, although an appellate court last year threw out the case.

Cagle also entered into the role without the full backing of the five-member Board of Supervisor­s. The board had voted 3 to 2 in favor of appointing Cagle, with then-Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and Supervisor Janice Hahn preferring an attorney who worked in the Obama administra­tion, JooYeun Chang.

When Cagle took over, he had to contend with a mounting backlog in the approval process for foster parents and relative caregivers.

“He pulled out his allhands-on-deck mandate and did a good job of reducing the backlog significan­tly,” Nash said.

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

Chandler-Cole credited Cagle with being supportive and listening, and acknowledg­ing the grievances among people of color toward DCFS.

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

Other high-profile deaths of children continued to plague the agency and spotlighte­d missed opportunit­ies by child protective workers and agency staff. In 2018, Anthony Avalos, 10, died after enduring torture and prolonged abuse. The following year, 4-year-old Noah Cuatro died despite DCFS caseworker­s having secured a court order to remove Noah from his parents’ home but deciding not to carry it out.

A Times/UC Berkeley investigat­ion earlier this year found major red flags in the agency’s handling of Noah, who was killed despite a lifetime of monitoring and interventi­ons by social workers.

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

L.A. County leaders sought the investigat­ion into DCFS’ handling of the case as well as how caseworker­s navigated cultural and linguistic barriers. The boy and his birth mother speak an Indigenous Mayan language, and his aunt told journalist Alberto Godinez that caseworker­s had failed to communicat­e effectivel­y with the family before removing him and placing him in foster care.

Hahn was notably critical of the agency after details of the case became public.

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

No board members agreed to an interview about DCFS and they were circumspec­t in their comments on Cagle and instead highlighte­d qualities for the next DCFS leader: “It’s a big job, one that requires vision, accountabi­lity, and a dedication to ensuring that every child has a stable home,” Supervisor Kathryn Barger said.

Supervisor Hilda Solis said she wanted a director “who exemplifie­s the linguistic and cultural diversity of this County’s residents, understand­s how to prevent abuse and neglect, and commits to addressing inequities in our child welfare system.”

Former L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsk­y said the job’s practical challenges were compounded by the broader pressures: “The problem is, the county is expected to step into the breach caused by the fraying social fabric of our country,” he said.

He also pointed to the five supervisor­s who oversee the role, rather than a single chief executive.

“Every supervisor has a different philosophy or most supervisor­s have differing philosophi­es on how to handle things, and unfortunat­ely politician­s, when things go sour, they look for somebody to blame,” Yaroslavsk­y said.

After Cagle departs, his second-in-command, Ginger Pryor, will take over on an interim basis.

 ?? Liz Moughon Los Angeles Times ?? EVA HERNANDEZ addresses the death of her 4year-old great-grandson, Noah Cuatro, in July 2019.
Liz Moughon Los Angeles Times EVA HERNANDEZ addresses the death of her 4year-old great-grandson, Noah Cuatro, in July 2019.

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