In Aftermath of Latest Child Death, L.A. Contends with Potential Foster Care Panic

On July 16, Los Angeles County’s Board of Supervisors brought in top leaders to discuss the death of 4-year-old Noah Cuatro. The illustration captures the faces of three other children who died in recent years: Anthony Avalos, Gabriel Fernandez and Yonatan Aguilar. Credit: Christine Ongjoco.

In mid-July, Bobby Cagle, the director of Los Angeles County’s $2.8-billion child welfare system, visited the high desert communities of Palmdale and Lancaster, both reeling from the latest child death to strike the county.

Still partially immobilized by a rupture to his Achilles tendon months earlier, Cagle had to both console deeply shaken workers and stop a “foster care panic” from gripping the community. The one thing he would not do was betray how the death of 4-year-old Noah Cuatro, less than two weeks earlier, was affecting him.

“Every time one of these [child deaths] happens in my career, it takes me a day or two to really get myself in order,” Cagle explained. “But I have to be in order because I have staff that depend on that. So, nobody would ever see that I was down because I won’t allow it.”

This moment is an important touchstone in Cagle’s 21-month-tenure with the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). He wants to be sure that increased calls to the child abuse hotline from concerned Angelenos – a commonplace reaction to high-profile child abuse death – don’t lead to children being unnecessarily removed from their homes.

For one of his bosses, County Supervisor Kathryn Barger, increased removals in the wake of Noah’s suspicious death seem all but a fait accompli.

“This has a chilling effect on social workers and you can see the rates of kids being pulled out of their homes go up because social workers are petrified that they could be the next casualty of what’s going on,” Barger said in a Chronicle interview last month.

While Cagle said that “removing a child from the home in any situation is a traumatic experience,” stalling the momentum of the removal machine is easier said than done.

Cagle knows this well. He was appointed to lead Georgia’s child welfare system in 2014 after a pair of high-profile child deaths. When he started, the number of children in foster care stood at 8,538. By the time he left in 2017, it had surged to 13,542, a nearly 60 percent spike, and one of the largest foster care increases in modern child welfare.

Unlike in Georgia, data doesn’t suggest Los Angeles has reacted as dramatically to its recent tragedies. Since the horrific murder of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez by his parents in 2013, the number of calls to the child abuse hotline have stayed almost static. But, in the midst of at least three widely covered child deaths since (of 110 total caregiver abuse fatalities of kids known to the system), foster care numbers have steadily grown. According to state data, there were 19,341 children in foster care in L.A. on April 1, 2013, less than two months before the news of Gabriel’s death would dominate the news cycle. By April 1, 2019 the population had grown to 21,396, an increase of just over 10 percent.

Cagle’s first year as DCFS chief also saw the agency escalate its response to alleged abuse. While the volume of calls increased only slightly from 2017 to 2018 (reaching 226,000 last year), the number of petitions DCFS filed with the dependency court to detain children went up from 11,803 to 13,790. The agency has already filed 8,522 new petitions in 2019, suggesting numbers will go even higher this year.

“Although the rate of petitions may have gone up somewhat, it did not result in more children coming out of the home proportionally,” Cagle said. “So I think it’s never a bad thing to have the courts become involved, that’s a safety mechanism to have another set of eyes on it.”

According to Richard Wexler – a prolific family preservation advocate who coined the phrase foster care panic – the lack of spiked increases in foster care numbers could be due to the already high rate of removal in L.A. County. Every year Wexler produces a “rate-of-removal index,” in which he compares big cities’ proclivity to separate families. L.A. regularly ranks third behind Philadelphia and Phoenix (Maricopa County) for the number of children separated from their biological families by the child protection system.

Cagle’s first major test as L.A.’s child protection chief was the June 2018 death of 10-year-old Anthony Avalos. Foster care numbers increased only modestly in the year since. But Noah’s death last month, and DCFS’ mysterious decision-making in the tragedy’s lead up has agency staff and county leaders especially on edge.

Jess McDonald ran Illinois’ child protection agency from 1994 to 2003 and is credited for bringing foster care numbers down despite coming into a system widely reviled for perceived mishandlings of child fatalities.

“Social workers know if they are wrong if something happens to the child, someone will punish them,” McDonald said. “They will lose their job. They will lose their reputation. And worse it kills their soul. They know they stand alone in facing these decisions.”

In Los Angeles, workers fear more than the loss of employment, reputation or their souls. Three workers involved in the Gabriel’s case are being criminally prosecuted.

Coupled with caseworkers’ fears are a series of actions and circumstances portending the hyper-vigilant response Supervisor Barger expects. The Board of Supervisors is promising to hire more social workers, and DCFS recently stiffened a key policy regarding child removals. Local media is covering the death at a frenzy, and the county is facing lawsuits involving both Noah and Anthony’s deaths, providing disturbingly lascivious filings that further fuel outrage.

What Happened to Noah?

On July 5, the parents of a little boy named Noah called 911 claiming that their son had drowned in the pool of their Palmdale apartment complex. The next day the boy died at an L.A. hospital. The Sheriff’s Department said that his injuries were inconsistent with drowning.

Since-released DCFS documents explained the cause as “severe neglect” and included more than a dozen interactions between Noah’s family and the agency. Like 182 other Los Angeles children in the past decade, Noah is suspected of being killed by his caregivers while known to the county’s child welfare system.

By the time Cagle arrived at the Lancaster office (which had handled both Noah and Anthony’s cases) reporting by The Los Angeles Times, and since corroborated by The Imprint, showed that the Juvenile Dependency Court had issued an order for Noah to be removed from his parent’s custody. What remains unknown is why the order was never carried out. Of the 5,000-plus removal orders issued this year, only two were ignored – one with horrific results.

“It’s been very traumatic,” said Roxanna Flores-Aguilar, who oversees DCFS’ Lancaster office. “It has an impact on the psyche. When we are operating from a place of fear, it’s survival mode. You go to primal brain. But when you are a social worker you need to function at a higher brain level.”

The tension in the Lancaster office was recently exacerbated by a $50-million lawsuit brought against the county and individual named workers on behalf of the father of Anthony Avalos, the 10-year-old who died of terrible abuse at his mother’s and her paramour’s hands in 2018. The attorney in that case, Brian Claypool, is also suing the county on behalf of Noah’s grandmother.

But most concerning, according to Flores-Aguilar, is the thought of being criminally prosecuted like the DCFS social workers involved in the 2013 death of Gabriel Fernandez.

“They fear making the wrong decision,” she said. “It’s not that they jump in and snatch a child, but they will make a pause and be more careful.”

The largest room in the Lancaster office can hold about 50 people. So despite losing roughly 60 of its case-carrying workers in the past two years – a quarter of its frontline workforce – Cagle had to meet with three separate groups.

“He did share that our obligation is primarily child safety,” Aguilar-Flores said. “But he tried to enforce the importance of not making hasty decisions out of fear.”

Mike Nash heads the county Office of Child Protection, a watchdog agency created in the wake of the brutal and preventable death of Gabriel Fernandez in 2013. Nash, who is currently investigating Noah’s death, pointed out that Cagle, unlike his predecessor Philip Browning, has taken responsibility for this latest tragedy.

“When Browning was there, he said. ‘We are gonna hold you [the social workers] accountable period,’” Nash said. “Obviously social workers will play it safe and remove kids. That’s the fear factor.”

Nash pointed out just how different Cagle’s response has been. On July 16, under the glare of five frustrated county supervisors in the county’s cavernous public meeting room, Cagle flatly said:

“This death happened on my watch. I fully accept the responsibility for the work that was done. I also fully accept the responsibility for understanding what went wrong, what we can do better, and to implement that as quickly as possible.”

Revving the Removal Machine

Less than two weeks after news of Noah’s death broke in local media, DCFS changed its policy regarding removal orders. What was once an ambiguous directive that made disregarding such an order possible, the new version ensures that workers explain to the director and his executive team why they aren’t going to carry one out.

On July 23, the Board of Supervisors heard and passed a motion aimed at improving recruitment and retention of caseworkers in the Antelope Valley, home to Palmdale and Lancaster, high caseloads and disproportionately high rates of child abuse and child death. At that late July board hearing, Lisa Garrett, L.A. County’s director of personnel, sat next to Cagle and pledged to help the agency hire as many social workers as it needed.

“We helped DCFS hire 300 social workers in a short amount of time and anticipate the same will happen here,” she said, referencing her agency’s help in finding employees for these hard-to-fill positions.

Hiring more workers was a hallmark of Cagle’s time leading Georgia’s child welfare system.

When he took the helm of the state’s Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS), he inherited a newly centralized child abuse reporting system which significantly increased call volume. To meet that need and the safety-oriented stance of his boss, Gov. Nathan Deal (R), Cagle took a number of steps that made the child welfare agency there more vigilant and ultimately contributed to higher numbers of children entering the system.

To contend with a whopping 9,000 backload of investigations, Cagle used overtime pay to get investigators to work weekends. And early in his tenure, he successfully lobbied Deal for funds to hire 278 new workers. By the time he left DFCS, the budget had grown by $200 million and 400 new workers had joined its ranks.

Despite this history, Cagle wants to avert any similar increase in foster care numbers in Los Angeles.

“I don’t go into a situation trying to artificially increase the number of children in foster care,” he said. “It’s just the opposite. I want people to do good assessments. I want them to remove when children are in danger, to the extent that their safety can’t be assured until the next time we see them.”

He added that while nothing is a “perfect solution” to stopping child deaths, foster care is often not the best option.

“I have been in circumstances in North Carolina and Georgia, where people would say you need to get more kids out of the home,” he said. “But I don’t believe that is the solution, because – in fact – kids die in foster care just as they die in the homes of the parents.”

A Measured Response to Child Deaths

While driving up to the Antelope Valley to spend time with his rattled workers, Cagle’s mental refrain was the World War II slogan: “Keep Calm and Carry On.”

“One of the things that good leaders recognize is that words matter and depending on what words you use, you can either keep people calm and help them get back to doing good assessments and reacting based upon those assessments, or you can kind of ratchet up the rhetoric to the point that people start reacting,” he said.

For County Supervisor Hilda Solis, the response to Noah’s death must be broader than DCFS, according to an email statement her office provided to The Imprint:

The tragic death of Noah continues to occupy my thoughts and actions as we work to reform the child welfare system to serve children in Los Angeles County. This reform, however, must be all encompassing, and must not only involve review of the Department of Children and Family Services’ critical role to remove children when they endure abuse or neglect.

The foster care system is a necessary safety net program to protect children. When abuse and neglect is not present, children must remain with their biological parents to ensure the best outcomes. We must shore up prevention efforts to provide families with what they need to be successful and remain together.

I require all County Departments to recognize their role in this regard. I also expect the Department of Children and Family Services to empower social workers and support them to make the best possible decision for children and families on a case-by-case basis: this requires lower caseloads, sufficient staffing and supervision, and support at all levels of government. This is what our residents expect and it is what they deserve.

Solis and other county leaders already have a blueprint to achieve these goals. In the wake of Gabriel’s death and the ensuing media maelstrom, the Board of Supervisors empaneled a Blue Ribbon Commission to improve the system. More than five years ago now, that commission issued a lengthy slate of reforms to move the county out of a “state of crisis” with regard to how it served its most vulnerable children.

“This is not a time for piecemeal change or tinkering on the edges. It is a time for a thoughtful, county-wide strategic paradigm shift in the way we view and treat at-risk children,” the commission concluded.

Key to that vision was the creation of the Office of Child Protection, which Mike Nash leads. On July 16, Solis and her colleagues directed Nash and his office to report back on the “systemic issues” that contributed to Noah’s death and include “recommendations for modifying and/or strengthening services to optimally protect the health and well-being of children.”

The report is due back by the end of the month.

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