As national foster care rates swell, the country’s largest child welfare system welcomes a new leader – one who presided over a dramatic increase in the number of children taken from their parents.
In the shadow of the Great Smoky Mountains lies Graham County, North Carolina, with its four traffic lights, 9,000 or so residents and miles of country road.
It was in this tiny place that Bobby Cagle, the youthful new director of Los Angeles County’s foster care system – the largest in the nation – was adopted as a baby, grew up and started his fast rise as a leader in the fraught world of public child welfare.
It was also here, on a cold winter day in 2002, that Cagle, then 35 and the director of Graham County’s Department of Social Services, faced the central dilemma staring down every child protection professional in the country. At what point does the harm a parent has done – or could do – to a child give the government license to break a family apart?
After more than a decade of decline, national foster care numbers started rising in 2012. This month, The Imprint projected that there were roughly 443,000 youth in foster care in 2017, a 12 percent increase since the rise started five years ago.
L.A. County’s foster care population has also grown in recent years. And while the rising numbers can be attributed to myriad causes, a leader’s disposition on when to remove a child has a significant effect.
When he was sworn in on Nov. 29, the 50-year-old took the helm of L.A. County’s $2.4 billion Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), which serves more than 34,000 children, roughly 18,000 of whom live in foster care.
This newfound prominence, which will afford Cagle the ear of child welfare leaders and politicians at most levels of government, gives him the opportunity to impact child welfare nationally. And given his age, his ideas on when to remove a child or not will change the lives of thousands of families for years to come.
A Cold Graham County Day
An anonymous call came into the county’s child abuse hotline. The caller said that the mother of a toddler was high on meth.
With no children’s social workers on duty that day, Cagle, the agency’s director, set off to conduct the investigation himself. Fifteen minutes later he pulled up to a trailer on a desolate patch of road.
He walked up, knocked on the door. The mother answered, with what Cagle remembers as a 3-year-old boy behind her. Once inside he took a seat on the couch. As the toddler bobbled around the tiny trailer, the mother admitted to using meth.
“She kept getting up saying there were microphones in the wall,” Cagle said. He observed a hole in the floor and missing paneling that she had removed in attempt to find the fictional devices.
“She was pretty high it seemed,” Cagle said. “It was almost like she wasn’t cognizant that there was a child in the room.”
The toddler started moving toward a glowing red kerosene heater sitting on the floor. Cagle watched the mother to see if she would react. When she didn’t, he jumped up and grabbed the child, who he then cradled on the couch.
“‘Wow, did you see the child almost ran into that hot stove?’” Cagle remembers asking.
“‘Yah, that is a problem,’” the mother said, according to Cagle.
“But she was still more concerned about the microphones and who would be listening than welfare of the child,” Cagle added.
The 30-something social services director couldn’t think of how to leave the child with the mother safely. He asked her for the names of family who could take the child in, but she refused.
Cagle called the office and asked that someone drive over with a car seat. An hour later, the toddler would be removed.
In the years since, Cagle has held authority in the removal of thousands of children. But the experience hasn’t made these decisions any easier to reconcile.
“What you are doing is weighing in your mind the relative negative of removing a child compared to the damage of the children being separated from the people who they love,” Cagle said.
“A child’s family is more important than I think we even understand at this point. The relationships there form the foundation of relationships for the rest of their lives. If those relationships are harmed or broken that is an impact that they need to deal with for the remainder of their lives.”
A Tale of Two Systems
While little known in L.A.’s child welfare community, Cagle’s arrival here follows his fast rise, leading ever-larger child-serving public agencies.
The last post he held was as the commissioner of Georgia’s Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) – pronounced DFAX by locals – where he reported directly to the governor.
His time in Georgia ran concurrent to one of the most tumultuous periods that any foster care system in the nation has ever faced, leaving L.A., which has enjoyed relative stability in recent years, wondering who exactly Bobby Cagle is and how he will lead.
By the time Cagle arrived at DFCS in 2006 as part of the executive team, the foster care population was already on the decline from a high point of 14,660 in 2004. In what became a controversial program to reduce entries into foster care in favor of keeping children with their families, numbers dropped to a low of just under 7,000 in 2010, a remarkable halving in less than five years.
When Cagle took over as commissioner in June of 2014, the number of children in the state’s foster care system was back on the rise and stood at 8,538.
Upon the North Carolinian’s appointment, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal, articulated the philosophical shift away from keeping families together and toward child safety that he wanted to see under his new commissioner.
“While a laudable goal, I believe the more appropriate goal is the welfare of the child,” Deal said in a story published in The Atlanta Constitution Journal at the time.
With child safety as the guiding principal, 5,000 more children were either pulled into or left in foster care under Cagle’s watch. As of Nov. 10, Cagle’s last day on the job, the number stood at 13,542 – nearing the state’s record high of 13 years before.
In Los Angeles, foster care numbers have also gone up, but at a much slower rate. The number of children in out-of-home care dropped from 27,439 in 2004 to a low of 17,051 in 2012. Under the leadership of Cagle’s predecessor, Philip Browning – also a southerner – the number steadily grew to 17,999 in January of 2017, his last month leading the department.
The upward trend in Los Angeles has been a concern for some top child welfare leaders in the county. Notably, a coalition of private agencies that contract with DCFS issued a petition calling on L.A.’s five member Board of Supervisors to replace Browning. In 2014, the group convened a town hall event featuring politicians and other top officials during which the increase under Browning’s watch was roundly criticized.
Indeed, Browning’s tenure was marked by increased scrutiny of child abuse investigations. Between 2000 and 2011 the rate at which investigations were filed as “petitions” to open a case in the county’s juvenile dependency court fluctuated from 4.6 to 8.5 percent. But, starting in 2012, when Browning was hired, the rate steadily rose, arriving at 10 percent in 2016.
Michael Nash, executive director of the 3-year-old county Office of Child Protection, says that L.A.’s foster care increase was also due to the “culture of fear” that pervaded Browning’s DCFS following the 2013 death of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez. The gruesome details of the boy’s murder stirred a media and political maelstrom that ultimately resulted in the creation of the oversight office that Nash now leads.
But, Nash added, the increase associated with a high profile death usually “levels off” after some time.
“We saw numbers go up,” Nash said. “Was it an intentional type of thing or just something that happened? It’s a question I have asked over the years.”
Like Browning, Cagle presided over a rise in foster care rates. The question for Los Angeles County and beyond was whether this was because of an aggressive stance on child removals.
During his tenure in Georgia, Cagle hired 675 new staff, but also contended with child deaths alongside structural and environmental factors that undoubtedly affected foster care numbers. He inherited a beefed-up child abuse hotline that ballooned reports, and struggled against the opioid epidemic’s hold on Georgia.
And while he is associated with increased removals, he also worked – both in North Carolina and in Georgia – to spread and strengthen a program bent on keeping families together.
Normer Adams, who was the executive director of the trade association representing foster care and service providers in Georgia until 2014, believes “Cagle is fully indoctrinated and convinced that family preservation works and keeps family safe.”
“Given the right political support, he can do the right thing for kids,” Adams said. “One thing I learned about Bobby, and how he moved up so fast, is that he is politically astute and will do what politicians want. People say if he was a courageous leader he would do the right thing. But, you can only do the right thing if you don’t get fired.”
Cagle in the Time of “Diversion”
In 2004, then-Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue hired Beverly “B.J.” Walker, who had worked in various human services positions in Illinois, to take over the state’s multi-billion dollar Department of Human Services, which oversees DFCS.
Prior to Walker’s arrival, the foster care division had been led by a former special agent in the Georgia Bureau of Investigations, who had ramped up child removals.
Tom Rawlings, who now serves as the director the Georgia Office of the Child Advocate, was a juvenile court judge in those days.
“Social workers were in ‘when in doubt pull ‘em out mode,’” Rawlings said. “That is when foster care numbers spiked to over 14,000, way more than there should have been then. Everyone was overloaded, and there was a significant increase in maltreatment in [foster] care. It was bad for a couple years.”
Walker set out to dramatically reduce the number of children in care. Her primary tool was a program called “diversion,” Georgia’s version of a child welfare policy orientation known as differential or alternative response.
Starting in 1993, differential response expanded rapidly across the country and was implemented in as many as 30 states. The hallmarks of these types of programs is that families deemed to be at low risk of abusing their children are offered voluntary services, as opposed to being immediately investigated and risk losing their children. Rather than enduring police-style “investigations,” families are “assessed” for their strengths.
But many in Georgia questioned whether or not diversion was actually putting children at risk.
At the time, many in the field felt that the program “was a quota system, meant to keep numbers down,” said Melissa Carter, the director of the Barton Child Law and Policy Center at Emory University.
During this era, Walker was known to hold Monday “cadence calls” where she would celebrate county directors who closed cases quickly and reprimand those who kept them open, Carter and others said. The result, Carter contends, was that diversion may have “declined the population inappropriately.”
In 2009 the Office of the Child Advocate, which Rawlings led, raised the alarm in a report stating that diversion was not being implemented with fidelity across the state’s 159 counties.
Cagle, who was part of DHS’ executive team at the time, believed in the concept of differential response, but agreed with Rawlings’ assessment that Georgia’s incarnation wasn’t being implemented safely.
“With that much variability there was the potential of children being placed at risk by people not properly implementing a practice that could have been good,” he said.
Despite mounting political pressure, Cagle wanted to salvage the diversion program. He brought in JoAnne Lamm, who had led North Carolina’s implementation of differential response from 2001 to 2004. Lamm and Cagle had grown close when he helped her expand the practice into the Charlotte area where he was deputy director.
In March of 2010, Lamm issued a lengthy report on diversion derived from interviews with scores of county and state child welfare workers, external stakeholders and exhaustive reviews of county-level protocols.
“My concern was the inconsistency,” Lamm said in an interview. “I believe families need to be treated the same if they are in one county or the other.”
Cagle said that Walker and her team “pretty much ignored” Lamm’s report.
“The report really didn’t go very far, honestly,” Cagle said. “I still feel like some of the loose practice at play at the time was putting children in danger.”
Despite the setback, Cagle says he was always committed to the family-centered approach that Walker had championed.
But Walker was out in 2011, and soon the numbers would be back on the rise.
Georgia’s Foster Care Boom
In 2013, Georgia changed how it responded to reports of child abuse and neglect. Hitherto, calls of abuse went straight to the state’s 159 county-level child protection agencies. The lines were open eight hours a day. As with diversion, inconsistency reigned, according to Ron Scroggy who was DFCS commissioner at the time.
In October of that year, DFCS launched a centralized hotline to field calls 24 hours a day.
The volume increase was dramatic. In 2013, there were an average of 7,295 calls a month. One year later the average had surged to 10,545, a 45 percent increase. This was compounded by expanded laws regarding who was required to report potential child abuse and for what reasons.
The deaths of two children – 12-year-old Eric Forbes and 10-year-old Emani Moss – in 2013 cemented a new direction for Georgia’s child welfare system. In the summer of 2014, Cagle would be named as DFCS commissioner.
“The governor’s instruction to me was to increase child safety,” Cagle said. “Before my appointment and after, he was talking in the media about that issue.”
Despite the change in rhetoric, Cagle says this did not translate into policy aimed at removing more children.
“For me, going in, I had my orders,” he said. “He is the man who runs the state. But, I didn’t do anything different except message child safety in the media.”
But, Cagle added, “If anyone running a system says that child safety isn’t the top goal, you ought to be fired.”
His first task was cutting a backlog of some 9,000 investigations that had not been completed by the state-mandated 45- or 60-day deadline, depending on the severity of the report. To do this, he used overtime to get his investigators to work Saturdays. During his first week he also changed the state’s differential response protocol to ensure that all allegations of physical abuse were investigated as opposed to assessed, which ramped up the scrutiny these families faced.
That first weekend as commissioner, Cagle visited Gwinnett County, just north and east of the 285 freeway, which encircles Atlanta. He went on a ride-along with an investigator who told him she was carrying 83 cases.
“I was just freaked out by that,” Cagle said. “I met with the governor and said, ‘You have an emergency.’”
Shortly thereafter Deal signed a budget allowing Cagle to hire an addition 278 child welfare workers. By the time Cagle left for Los Angeles, 400 more workers would be hired and the amount the state allocated to DFCS’ budget would jump from $200 million in 2014 to $465 million today.
Compounding the increase in foster care numbers, driven in part by a beefed-up detection system and a growing workforce to investigate cases, was the opioid crisis.
When Cagle started, about one quarter of children in Georgia were removed because of substance abuse issues. In 2017, the percentage had grown to roughly 40 percent.
To the degree that Georgia children were safer in Cagle’s time is unclear. A key measure used by the federal government to gauge safety is the rate at which children found to be victims of abuse are re-abused within 6 months.
In 2010, the low point of Georgia’s foster care numbers, the re-abuse rate was 3 percent, according to data from the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System. In December of 2016, when Cagle was commissioner, the rate was 4.9 percent, a 63 percent increase.
Susan Boatwright, a DFCS’ spokesperson, attributes the increased rates of re-maltreatment to “the significant increase in the number of CPS referrals received following the implementation of the centralized CPS reporting system beginning in 2013.”
Coming to Los Angeles
When contemplating child safety and foster care numbers in L.A., Cagle says he’s ready to learn.
“Looking at the numbers can tell you one part of the story, but you need to understand the perspective of stakeholders and youth in care,” he said. “You have to understand what has precipitated the rise of children in care.
“My hope would be to enact reforms to bring down numbers. But I don’t want to do that in an artificial way by giving numerical goals for reductions in foster care without proper discussion around the role of safety in the work. That can put children in danger,” Cagle said.
For the past two decades – during which national foster rates dropped consistently – reduction in numbers was often touted by child welfare leaders as a good in and of itself, as was apparently the case in Georgia.
In Cagle, history suggests a leader who wants to balance the goal of keeping families together with his first priority: ensuring child safety.
To get there, he will try to build a system – robust, rigid and ready – to do both.
Whether Bobby Cagle can succeed in achieving that elusive goal is a question for a future day.