New child welfare head well-regarded by some Georgia advocates, despite mixed successes

After nearly a year, Los Angeles County’s Department of Children and Family Services will once again have a top leader starting Dec. 1.

The Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to appoint Bobby Cagle, who currently serves as director of the Division of Family and Children Services in Georgia’s Department of Human Services, to the position at a salary of $300,000. He will take over from acting director Brandon Nichols.

Cagle has a long history of working in child welfare, having served as a case worker and ascended the ranks of the state agency, becoming director in 2014.

“Bobby Cagle earned my vote because of his tried and true experience running a child welfare system,” Supervisor Hilda Solis said in a statement. “He met or exceeded all the criteria set forth by foster youth and advocates.”

Cagle currently oversees an agency with a $1.3-billion budget and about 13,000 kids in foster care. As director he expanded the child welfare budget and hired more than 600 case workers. He also persuaded the state to raise worker pay by nearly 20% and to increase foster care reimbursements.

“He is able to understand the importance of negotiation [and] the politics involved in this job,” said Kathy Colbenson, who has run a local foster care agency for more than 30 years.

Cagle has also taken pains to solicit the input of foster youth, social workers, service providers and advocates, Colbenson and others said, conducting ongoing listening tours around the state.

But under Cagle’s leadership the number of children in foster care in Georgia rose, from about 9,000 in June 2014 to just above 13,000 in March 2017, according to state data.

“A giant spike in the number of children removed from their homes… did nothing to keep children safer,” said Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, which advocates for keeping children with their families. “He is very clearly the wrong choice for Los Angeles County.”

Others said the increase was tied to factors beyond Cagle’s control, like the opioid epidemic, and that previous policies had focused on keeping the population low above all else.

“I don’t think [the increases are] a reflection of his personal philosophy or ideology about how the system works,” said Melissa Carter, who runs a child law and policy program at Emory and has known Cagle for nearly 10 years. “Bobby inherited it in a reactive moment.”

One of the things he did, Carter said, was standardize how social workers take in complaints, investigate and respond, with a focus on partnering with families.

“That was a big deal — something that reflected a real core strategy for the first time,” she said.

But Carter, who previously served as the state’s ombudsman for child welfare, said that emphasis may have come at the expense of planning for kids’ permanent homes and exit from the system. “That does contribute to an uptick in the foster care population,” she said.

Cagle also helped negotiate a plan to exit a consent decree resulting from a 2002 lawsuit over inadequate safety at foster shelters and other violations in the Atlanta-area foster system, the largest in the state.

Yet the latest monitoring report found that during the second half of last year, the number of case managers in the Atlanta area declined, as did the timeliness and quality of investigations. Duration in care increased and a foster home shortage led to reliance on group homes and, sometimes, hotels.

Last year Cagle sent out a staff-wide memo announcing a goal to place at least 50% of children with kin by 2018, but there are little data on its effects so far.

He declined to be interviewed for this article, saying he preferred to wait until assuming office.

Cagle will likely face some skeptics in L.A. County, including among his bosses. His confirmation was approved 4-0, with Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas abstaining. When the board previously met to consider finalists, Ridley-Thomas and Supervisor Janice Hahn voted for another candidate and — somewhat unusually for the county — released her name.

The alternate, JooYeun Chang, was an appointee in the Obama administration and director at Casey Family Programs.

“The candidates… were equally qualified,” Hahn said in a statement. “I chose to vote for the candidate who would add diversity to our department leadership.” She added that Cagle has her “full confidence.”

Ridley-Thomas declined to explain his votes, saying only that “I’m obliged to work very hard in the interest of… children and their families, and that’s precisely what we will attempt to do.”

Philip Browning, who served as head of Children and Family Services for five years before retiring in January, said he wasn’t surprised the supervisors differed. But he said it would be helpful for them to unite around the new director.

“The DCFS job was the most challenging one I ever had,” he said. “This individual is going to need all the help he can get.”

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