On November 13, The Imprint reported that in the weeks before the tragic death of Noah Cuatro, a 4-year-old Los Angeles boy, social workers with the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) pleaded for his removal. Cuatro’s parents have been accused of his murder.
DCFS Director Bobby Cagle submitted the following Letter to the Editor in response to the article.
The death of a child is the thing that social workers fear above all else. Simply put, it is the absolute antithesis of the safe child and healthy family we work so diligently to assure. DCFS consistently and thoughtfully evaluates our practice and policies to ensure that we are providing the best service possible to families in crisis where there is suspected abuse or neglect because we understand what is at stake. The responsibility to safeguard L.A. County’s more than 2 million children is not one we take lightly.
Like our law enforcement partners, social workers are required by law and DCFS policy to develop a case based on facts gathered through an investigation when there is an allegation of child abuse or neglect.
It is imperative that we identify concrete and substantiated evidence before taking the drastic, but sometimes necessary, step to remove a child from their home. Even removing a child from the home carries risk, which is why it is a decision weighed heavily before exercised, if granted authority by the Court. There are no interventions that have been shown to guarantee the safety of a child in 100 percent of cases, 100 percent of the time.
DCFS provides extensive trainings to teach and guide our social workers on how to gather and submit appropriate evidence to the Court. In academic settings and in practice, we encourage our social workers and staff to pay attention to their gut instincts, but our decisions can never rely on that alone. Hunches, feelings and gut instincts should prompt social workers to dig more deeply but cannot be presented to the Court as fact if they are not supported by concrete evidence.
Because social workers have great power in requesting the removal of a child, we must always utilize discretion paired with supporting evidence before exercising this authority. Child welfare is a system of checks and balances that involves DCFS staff, law enforcement, health professionals, attorneys and judicial officers involved in the decision making about a child’s safety and well-being based on the facts gathered through an investigation.
It is incumbent upon DCFS to train our social workers to the highest possible degree in order for them to be well-equipped to serve vulnerable children and families in our communities. In the last six years, DCFS has:
- Launched a new academy, DCFS University, that includes experiential training;
- Increased mentoring to connect staff who are newer to the field with more experienced social workers;
- Provided recognition of injuries training with the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services to ensure staff can better identify physical injuries that are a result of abuse; and
- Trained staff in child interviewing techniques with Dr. Thomas Lyon, an expert in child abuse and neglect, child witnesses and evidence, to improve social worker investigations to result in more truthful information with higher accuracy and reduced trauma to the child.
In the last 18 months, DCFS has also worked with the Office of Child Protection and the National Council on Crime and Delinquency to do an in-depth analysis of the Department’s use of Structured Decision Making tools. As a result of this work, DCFS will roll out new policy and in-depth training to enhance the skills of our social workers for more effective use of this tool.
In the aftermath of a tragic child death, it is right to be self-reflective and seek answers to the hard questions.
Bobby D. Cagle
Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services