In an unexpected move just four years into his tenure as the head of the nation’s largest local child welfare system, Los Angeles County’s Department of Children and Family Services Director Bobby Cagle is leaving his post, The Imprint has learned.
A statement released Tuesday night by the agency confirmed the departure, but provided few details, stating simply that Cagle had submitted a letter of resignation to the Board of Supervisors and will depart on Dec. 31.
“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,” Cagle, 54, wrote in an email to staff that was included in the statement.
With a budget of $2.9 billion and more than 9,000 employees, Los Angeles County’s child welfare system is larger than some entire state systems. The agency fields roughly 200,000 reports of abuse and neglect a year, and supervises nearly 33,000 children, including more than 18,000 children in out-of-home foster care placements.
In January, Los Angeles County DCFS Chief Deputy Director Ginger Pryor will step in as acting director, according to the Department of Children and Family Services’ press release. Dawna Yokoyama, a retired deputy director, will return to the county to serve as interim chief deputy director.
Cagle’s four years in office involved repeated tests of his leadership, including the torture and killing of a 4-year-old Palmdale boy, Noah Cuatro in July 2019. Cuatro — who allegedly died at the hands of his parents — had been monitored by the Department of Child and Family Services, but social workers chose to allow him to remain at home with his family. The case was widely covered in the media and led to heated local outrage about the department’s practices. Ultimately, the county’s Office of Child Protection absolved the department for responsibility in the incident.
Cagle also led the agency during the trying times of the coronavirus pandemic over the past two years. That has involved adapting his agency to numerous critical challenges, including an early scramble for personal protective equipment for county staff, the closure of the juvenile dependency court, and limitations on visitation between parents and children. Caseloads grew significantly during the pandemic — not because of spikes in child maltreatment, but because the shuttered courts were not closing foster care cases in a timely manner, creating a backlog of children and parents awaiting reunification and adoption.
Months after Cagle was appointed to his post, the landmark Family First Prevention Services Act was signed into federal law, mandating child welfare agencies to reduce their reliance on group homes and institutions and create a new array of services designed to prevent children from entering foster care in the first place. The federal law also ended the Title IV-E waiver program, which provided flexible funding to some counties and states across the country. That left Los Angeles County with a $300 million shortfall.
Cagle met that challenge by campaigning nationally for funding to make up the difference.
He is also credited with helping create an Office of Equity within his department, a new entity designed to reduce the disproportionate number of Black and LGBTQ children under the agency’s oversight.
Cagle has his own history in the child welfare system, making him a rare director with lived experience. He was placed in North Carolina’s foster care system as a baby and adopted as a young child. He replaced former Los Angeles County director Philip Browning in 2017, after serving three years as director of the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services, reporting directly to then-Gov. Nathan Deal (R).
Cagle steps down at a time when advocates for children and families are pushing the agency to make sweeping changes. They include reducing the number of children in foster care and tackling what critics describe as racial bias in who gets investigated and accused of child maltreatment, and which children are ultimately removed from their homes.
Black children make up just 7.5% of Los Angeles County’s child population but more than 27% of children in the foster care system, according to the Child Welfare Indicators Project.
Charity Chandler-Cole, leader of the county’s court-appointed special advocate program and a member of the Reimagine Child Safety Coalition that is demanding local reforms, said she hopes the next agency head is someone from Los Angeles County, with personal experience of the system and an appetite for change.
Chandler-Cole stated in an email to The Imprint that the focus should be “major prevention efforts that address the root causes that lead Black, brown and indigenous families to be disproportionately funneled through the child welfare system.” That person, she added, should be “willing and ready to call out, resist and change practices, processes and policies that are harmful to our children, families and communities.”
In a statement emailed to The Imprint, Supervisor Kathryn Barger said she was already focusing on the search for the agency’s next leader.
“It’s a big job, one that requires vision, accountability, and a dedication to ensuring that every child has a stable home,” the statement reads. “I will do everything possible to ensure we equip our County’s Department of Children and Family Services with the best executive leader that our county has to offer.”