L.A. County DCFS again at crossroads as another director departs amid child deaths

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

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DCFS is facing increasing scrutiny following a series of highly publicized deaths and injuries of children under its watch, which involved a 4-year-old boy hospitalized in a coma last month.

The agency is still grappling with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, when teachers and other mandated journalists had little contact with children and court closures were causing cases to skyrocket.

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And Cagle’s departure, which takes effect December 31, comes as county leaders and a range of civic groups intensify calls for DCFS to address racial and ethnic inequalities, including blacks in foster care. Over-representation of children is involved. Although 7.5% of children in LA County are black, they have more than 27% of children in foster care.

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County leaders will have to find a new director to oversee a massive workforce of 9,000 in nearly 20 offices and a budget of more than $2.4 billion – but also to carry out reforms amid political and civic pressures.

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“This is not a job for the faint of heart,” said Charity Chandler-Cole, chief executive of CASA of Los Angeles, which connects court-appointed advocates with children in foster care. Chandler-Cole has put the agency at a crossroads. Described: “Our past has a lot to do with history. Much attention has been paid to how LA County and DCFS will respond to these challenges of addressing equality and racial justice. ,

She continued, “I felt like Bobby was doing it and was ready to support all of these initiatives — for me, it was shocking for him to 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 “tired” and said his departure was not forced by any particular case.

The DCFS did not provide any explanation about the timing of the resignation, but the agency said in a statement that he planned to enter the private sector after three decades in public service.

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

“It’s kind of a shock to me,” said retired judge Michael Nash, who leads the LA County Office of Child Protection. Nash noted that Cagle served four years, which is more than many of his predecessors: “It seems that the life expectancy of directors is not that great. It is a reflection of how hard the work is and that How important. The risks are enormous – we are dealing with the most vulnerable in our population, our children.”

David Greene, a social worker who is also president of the Service Employees’ international union Local 721, which represents more than 9,000 DCFS employees among its 95,000 members, said he saw Cagle as a partner and ally, Especially during the pandemic.

Greene recalled being in “constant communication” with Cagle as he sought to protect DCFS staff – who still visited the site and needed critical protective gear – as well as vulnerable families.

“He grew up in the child welfare system and was a social worker and didn’t forget that he was a social worker in his leadership style and outreach,” Green said. “We’re sorry for his departure.”

After leading Georgia’s Division of Family and Children’s Services, Cagle took over the running of LA County’s Child Protective Services network in 2017.

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

Gabriel’s case illustrates the county’s failures to care for vulnerable children. Four LA County social workers were charged with child abuse and falsifying public records regarding their work in Gabriel’s case, though an appellate court dismissed the case last year.

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

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

“They pulled out their unanimous mandate and did a good job of reducing the backlog,” Nash said.

Supervisor Sheila Kuehl praised Cagle’s dedication to developing programs for LGBTQ foster youth, implementing policies for placing children with relatives, and developing a strategic plan that the agency would use after he left. .

Nash said Cagle also advocated for foster parents and relative caregivers to receive adequate funding at an earlier point in the process.

Chandler-Cole credits Cagle with supporting and listening, and acknowledging complaints among people of color towards DCFS.

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

Other high-profile deaths of children continue to haunt the agency and highlight opportunities missed by child protection activists and agency staff. In 2018, 10-year-old Anthony Avalos died after torture and prolonged abuse. The following year, 4-year-old Noah Cuatro died while DCFS caseworkers obtained a court order to remove Noah from his parents’ home, but decided not to fulfill it.

A Times/UC Berkeley investigation earlier this year found major red flags in the agency’s handling of Noah Cuatro, who was killed despite life-long monitoring and intervention by social activists.

Support for Cagle appears to be waning this fall as a boy was allegedly abused by his foster mother. The boy, identified as Andres F., was hospitalized with life-threatening injuries, and his foster mother, 26-year-old Gabriella Casarez, was charged with two counts of child abuse and one count of assault due to coma or paralysis Was.

LA County leaders called for an investigation into the handling of the case by the DCFS, as well as how the caseworkers crossed cultural and linguistic barriers. The boy and his birth mother speak an indigenous Mayan language, and his aunt told journalist Alberto Godínez that caseworkers had failed to communicate effectively with the family before removing him and placing him in foster care.

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

“This story is frightening,” 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 members agreed to an interview about DCFS and were circumspect in their comments on Cagle and instead highlighted the qualities of the next DCFS leader: “This is a great job that requires vision, accountability and ensuring To do that requires a dedication that every child has a stable home,” said supervisor Katherine Barger.

Supervisor Hilda Solis said she wants a director “who exemplifies the linguistic and cultural diversity of this county’s residents, understands how to prevent abuse and neglect, and to address inequalities in our child welfare system.” committed to.”

Solis said in a statement, “I hope to be at the forefront of this process is people with experience in living, allowing us to recruit a director who will explain what it means to serve children and family. “

Former LA County Supervisor Zaev Yaroslavsky said the job’s practical challenges were compounded by widespread pressures. “The problem is, the county is expected to step in in violation of the horrific social fabric of our country,” he said.

“If a parent or parent or guardian can’t do the job, imagine why a government agency could step in and become a surrogate parent, it’s not built for success. “

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

Yaroslavsky said, “Every observer has a different philosophy or most observers have a different philosophy of how to handle things, and unfortunately politicians, when things go bad, tend to look for someone to blame.” Huh.”

After Cagle leaves at the end of December, his second-in-command, Ginger Prior, will take over on an interim basis. Dawana Yokoyama, a retired deputy director of DCFS, was also to return as interim chief deputy director, while LA County was looking for a new director.

Times staff writer James Qualey contributed to this report.

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