Bobby Cagle’s sudden resignation as head of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Affairs this week ends a turbulent period for the nation’s largest child welfare agency and will push county leaders to address key policy issues around how social workers respond to messages. … abuse and neglect and prefer to meddle in family affairs.
DCFS is under increasing scrutiny following a number of high-profile deaths and injuries of children under its supervision, including a 4-year-old boy in foster care who was hospitalized in a coma last month.
The agency is still grappling with the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, with teachers and other mandatory reporters having far less contact with children, and the closure of courts has led to a sharp increase in backlogs.
And Keigle’s departure, which takes effect December 31, stems from district leaders and a number of civic groups stepping up calls for DCFS to address racial and ethnic inequalities, including the overrepresentation of black children in foster homes. Although 7.5% of children in Los Angeles County are black, they account for over 27% of children in foster care.
County leaders must find a new director to manage a large workforce of 9,000 across some 20 offices and a budget of over $ 2.4 billion, and reform in the face of political and civic pressure.
“This is not a job for the faint of heart,” said Charity Chandler-Cole, executive director of CASA in Los Angeles, which brings together court-appointed attorneys with foster children. Chandler-Cole described the agency as being at a crossroads: “There are so many stories to reckon with in our past. There is a strong focus on how Los Angeles County and DCFS will respond to these issues of equity and racial justice. ”
She added: “I felt like Bobby was doing it and was ready to support all these initiatives – it was a shock to me to see him leave.”
Cagle declined an interview request through a DCFS representative. A person familiar with his thinking, who spoke on condition of anonymity, called him “emaciated” and said that his departure was not prompted by any specific incident.
DCFS did not provide any explanation for the timing of the retirement, but the agency said in a statement that it plans to move to the private sector after three decades in the civil service.
“I have been honored to lead this important work and serve with all of you thousands of dedicated Child Protection Officers in Los Angeles DCFS,” Cagle wrote in an email to staff on Tuesday night.
“It’s kind of a shock for me,” said Michael Nash, a retired judge who heads the Los Angeles County Child Protection Agency. Nash noted that Cagle served four years, which is more than many of his predecessors: “It looks like filmmakers don’t have that long lifespan. It is a reflection of how difficult the job is and how important it is. The risks are so high – we are dealing with the most vulnerable people in our population, with our children. “
David Green, a social worker who is also president of the Local 721 International Service Workers Union, which represents more than 9,000 DCFS employees out of 95,000 members, said he sees Keigle as a partner and collaborator, especially during the pandemic.
Green recalled that he was “in constant contact” with Cagle as they sought to protect DCFS personnel who were still visiting sites and in need of critical protective gear, as well as vulnerable families.
“He grew up in a child welfare system, was a social worker and did not forget that he was a social worker in his leadership style and work with people,” Green said. “We are very sorry that he left.”
Cagle took over the Los Angeles County Child Welfare Service in 2017 after becoming the head of the Georgia State Family and Child Services Division.
At the time, DCFS was reeling after the death of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez, a Palmdale boy who was mistreated and tortured by his mother and her boyfriend.
Gabriel’s case seemed to confirm the district’s failure to care for vulnerable children. Four Los Angeles County social workers were charged with child abuse and falsification of public records in connection with their work in the Gabriel case, although the case was dismissed by an appeals court last year.
Cagle also took office without the full support of the five-member Supervisory Board. The board voted 3 to 2 to appoint Cagle, with then-supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and supervisor Janice Khan giving preference to Obama administration lawyer Juyeon Chang.
When Cagle came to power, he had to contend with a growing backlog in the approval process for adoptive parents and caregivers.
“He gave up his permanent presence and did a good job of closing the gap significantly,” Nash said.
Supervisor Sheila Kuehl praised Cagle for his commitment to developing programs for fostering LGBTQ youth, implementing child retention policies, and developing a strategic plan that the agency will follow even after he leaves.
Cagle also encouraged foster parents and caregivers to obtain adequate funding earlier in the process, Nash said.
Chandler-Cole credited Keigle with support and attention, as well as acknowledgment of the disaffection of people of color towards DCFS.
“He didn’t defend himself or make excuses,” Chandler-Cole said. “He listened constantly and wanted to be part of the change.”
Other high-profile child deaths continued to haunt the agency and drew attention to missed opportunities from child protection workers and agency staff. In 2018, 10-year-old Anthony Avalos passed away following torture and prolonged ill-treatment. The following year, 4-year-old Noah Cuatro died, despite the fact that community workers at DCFS obtained a court order to evict Noah from his parents’ house, but decided not to comply.
A Times / UC Berkeley investigation earlier this year highlighted serious concerns about the agency’s handling of Noah Cuatro, who was killed despite being under the supervision and intervention of social workers throughout his life.
Cagle’s support has dwindled this fall due to alleged abuse of the boy by his adoptive mother. The boy, identified as Andres F., was hospitalized with life-threatening injuries and his adoptive mother, 26-year-old Gabriela Casares, was charged with two counts of child abuse and one count of assault that led to a coma or paralysis.
Los Angeles County leaders have pushed for an investigation into how DCFS does business and how social workers overcome cultural and language barriers. The boy and his biological mother speak the indigenous Mayan language, and his aunt told journalist Alberto Godines that social workers were unable to communicate effectively with the family before taking him and placing him in a foster home.
After the details of the case became public, Khan sharply criticized the agency.
“This story is terrifying,” Khan said earlier this month, calling for an investigation. “We had to protect this boy when we took him out of his family.”
None of the board members agreed to be interviewed about DCFS, and they were discreet in their comments about Kagle and instead emphasized the qualities of the next DCFS leader: “This is a big job that requires vision, accountability and dedication to ensure every child has a stable home, ”curator Catherine Barger said.
Observer Hilda Solis said she needs a director “who will serve as an example of the linguistic and cultural diversity of the community, understands how to prevent abuse and neglect, and is committed to addressing inequalities in our child protection system.”
“I expect the contributions of those with life experiences to be at the forefront of this process, allowing us to hire a director who will reimagine what it means to serve children and families,” Solis said in a statement.
Former Los Angeles County inspector Zev Yaroslavsky said practical problems at work were compounded by broader pressure. “The problem is that the district is expected to enter a breach caused by our country’s frayed social fabric,” he said.
“If a parent, parent, or guardian is unable to do their job, imagine why a government agency could intervene in the violation and become a surrogate parent, this is not meant to be successful.”
He also pointed to five executives overseeing this role, rather than one CEO.
“Each leader has his own philosophy, or most leaders have their own philosophy of how to act, and, unfortunately, politicians, when things go wrong, they look for the guilty,” Yaroslavsky said.
After Cagle leaves at the end of December, his deputy, Ginger Pryor, will temporarily take over. Retired DCFS deputy director Dauna Yokoyama was also scheduled to return as interim deputy director while Los Angeles County seeks a new director.
Times staff writer James Quilly contributed to this report.