L.A. County DCFS again at crossroads as another director departs amid child deaths
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 following a series of highly publicized deaths and injuries to children on its watch, including a 4-year-old 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 court-appointed 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 8-year-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 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 all-hands-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.
Cagle also advocated for foster parents and relative caregivers to receive sufficient funding at an earlier point in the process, Nash said.
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 Cuatro, 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.”
“I expect the input of those with lived experience to be at the forefront of this process, allowing us to recruit a director who reimagines what it means to serve children and family,” Solis said in a statement.
Former L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said the job’s practical challenges were compounded by 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.
“If a parent or parents or guardians can’t do the job, imagine why a government agency can step into the breach and become a surrogate parent, it’s not designed for success.”
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 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 to return as an interim chief deputy director while L.A. County searches for a new director.
Times staff writer James Queally contributed to this report.
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