At the end of last year, Bobby Cagle stepped down as leader of Los Angeles County’s child welfare system after four years at the helm, citing the overwhelming pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Over the past two years, Cagle shepherded the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) through a host of challenges, including a lack of personal protective gear, outbreaks at congregate care facilities, social workers sickened by the coronavirus and the responsibility of upholding vaccination mandates for both staff and caregivers. Caseloads surged to a high not seen in more than a decade, and the disrupted courts and supervision process left many families stuck in the child welfare system, unable to reunify.
“I’m truly exhausted and intend to really take some time off just to kind of recollect myself,” Cagle said in an interview with The Imprint at the end of December.
Former DCFS Chief Deputy Director Ginger Pryor is now serving as acting director.
When Cagle began his tenure as director in December 2017, Los Angeles County oversaw about 21,000 children in foster care, according to UC Berkeley’s California Child Welfare Indicators Project. Though the number shot up at the start of the pandemic, more recent figures are almost identical to those four years ago.
Under Cagle’s leadership of the nation’s largest county-run child welfare system, fewer children were sent to group care. Cagle, himself a former foster child and adoptee, also increased reliance on relative caregivers and created his department’s Office of Equity to better serve LGBTQ and Black foster youth.
But Cagle’s time in office was also marked by the death of two children — Anthony Avalos and Noah Cuatro — allegedly at the hands of their parents who had been known to L.A. County’s child welfare system. Cagle and Department of Children and Family Services social workers faced scrutiny over whether they had missed signs of abuse as well as other systemic issues that contributed to the deaths.
Cagle also faced criticism from community advocates, who believe the agency takes too many children into foster care who could be better served at home, especially those from Black families.
Now, as the county searches for his replacement, a new coalition led by Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles is hoping to change the direction of the county’s child welfare system. In November, the Reimagine Child Safety Coalition presented a list of demands to the board of supervisors that would guarantee parents more rights during a child maltreatment investigation and prevent the separation of children from their families for reasons of poverty and domestic violence.
“We need a leader who is willing to pivot from DCFS’s current practices of ripping families apart, and focus on prevention by providing families with the resources and support they need to thrive so that they don’t come in contact with the system in the first place,” the group announced in a press release after Cagle resigned.
Whoever steps into Cagle’s position will also face a growing fiscal squeeze. Los Angeles County and the state’s Service Employees International Union — which represents thousands of the agency’s social workers — are asking for the state to help defray a $300 million deficit. The gap is attributed to federal and state finance reforms, as well as mounting costs from a higher-than expected number of young people who have remained in foster care until age 21.
Cagle, who led Georgia’s Division of Family and Children Services for three years before moving to L.A., said he hopes to continue work in the child welfare field as a consultant after spending some time with family in North Carolina.
In a far-ranging interview with The Imprint, Cagle outlined some of the difficulties his agency has experienced during the pandemic, how he avoided being a “dangerous social worker” at the start of his career, and the most pressing issues facing his successor.
“You can make some really significant changes for large parts of the population as well as kind of set the tone for discussion at the national level,” he said. “But overseeing this department of 9,000 staff at a budget of $3 billion is just a massive undertaking for anybody, and God bless them — I’ll be praying for them.”
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.
Why did you decide to quit now?
When COVID hit, it had been insane the last few years, and I’m truly truly exhausted. I intend to really take some time off just to kind of recollect myself. I was talking to a mentor of mine and she told me years ago when I left my last role, that leaders had to know when to come and they need to also know when to go. This is probably the most difficult decision I’ve ever made to step away, but I think it’s the right one.
But if it were not for the pandemic, I would have continued on. This is an incredibly hard job. It is the most challenging job I’ve ever done. And during the pandemic, it became incredibly difficult.
What have been some of the hardest parts of the pandemic?
We started out without even having the protective equipment that we needed and then it just progressed on. We have to do so many additional things now. We have to worry now about our vaccinations. We have to worry about the vaccinations for the kids that we have in care. We have to worry about vaccination for caretakers, and then protecting ourselves and families that we serve when we go into homes. You lay all that on top of a job that’s already in some ways near impossible and it will wear you out quickly.
I was looking at data the other day and we have around 9000 employees and we’ve had over 1,500 that have contracted COVID during the pandemic. We had a couple of staff die. And thinking back to the very beginning of it, none of us really knew how this would unfold, but what we did know, though, was that probably the most effective thing we could do is wear masks and stay far apart. But we’ve never been able to stay far apart because we had to go into homes to see children and families and that has continued with no pause. Some of the hardest things I’ve ever done are to ask people to act sacrificially in some ways, to go in homes when we did not have masks and to continue to do their jobs.
Did things get any better?
When we did get the protective equipment. I think the real challenge for us then was around keeping other people engaged, like families being willing to allow us into their homes, the foster parents that do the work for us, making sure that they stayed with us. But even so we lost a lot of good experienced foster parents. Because by and large, those folks are not young, they’re typically older. And so people very logically were afraid of bringing COVID into their homes.
We’re still having difficulty with vaccine hesitancy. About 10% of our 9,000 staff that are vaccine hesitant, have religious concerns or have medical reasons why they can’t get the vaccine. And so those 900-odd staff are now having to test regularly in order to be able to continue to do the work. And even that worries me because I think the public has a right to expect that those that go into their home are as fully protected as they possibly can be.
What do you think are some of the biggest challenges your successor will face?
The Family First Prevention Services Act. If we don’t do that well, we are not serving our families and children well, and so a continuing focus on making sure that we are effectively implementing that federal law and using it to the extent that we can is going to be the biggest challenge for the person coming in. If we’re able to do that, I think it’s going to meet many of those goals and keep families from ever getting into our system, keeping kids from coming into foster care and helping them exit more quickly.
I think the other big challenge that I don’t know that we even have a way to quantify right now is the level of need of youth in our system, and the families in the community. My counterparts in mental health are seeing the beginnings of a tidal wave of mental health issues related to all the things that have gone on with COVID. This has been so stressful and impactful for families and kids too, that I think we’re going to have a mental health crisis on our hands.
Are there things on the horizon you might not have anticipated earlier on in your tenure?
I’m afraid we’re beginning to see an exodus of very experienced staff. My executive staff, when I met with them earlier this week, was telling me that they’re beginning to see resignations, not newbies who come in and are kind of shocked by the work. They’re actually having these five-, six-, seven-, eight-, nine-year employees who are good, solid social workers who are deciding that they don’t want to do this anymore.
It worries me because this work takes longevity in order to achieve proficiency and the younger social workers — I think back to when I was a brand new social worker, frankly, had it not been for having a director who was a 40-year social worker, I would have been dangerous.
I look at our new staff and they’re all outstanding, but they lack that key element which is experience. And then we’ve had to promote people into supervisory roles. And this is really not even fair to them. They think, “Wow, I got promoted to supervisor.” But if you only have a couple of years yourself, you don’t have the kind of experience that is beneficial to the staff that work for you, to be able to say “I’ve seen this kind of case multiple times, and this is the best way to handle those.”
Advocates, including those with the newly formed Reimagine Child Safety Coalition, say that there are far too many children removed from their homes and placed into foster care, most often Black kids. How might child welfare agencies begin to make progress on decreasing the number of children in the system?
I frankly think that almost every system brings in too many kids. And part of that is due to the fact that this is really an imprecise science. We have kind of standard policies, standard law definitions that we try to operate on, but then you have the introduction of individual variables, like you have certain social workers who are very committed to doing everything that they can to avoid taking kids out. While you have others that really have a mindset of the only way to protect kids is to remove them.
What we have to do is to continue to push people to examine their own belief systems. And we have to challenge systems around this — there are people in leadership roles throughout the country that may be pressing their child welfare director to take more kids into care because they believe that they’ve kept them safer.
What can you say about caseloads and child safety?
If you look historically in L.A. County, at one point we had 60,000 kids in our system; this was back during the crack epidemic. And if you look at the child death data, you would think if that belief held true, that we would have had a very low death rate, the death rate has actually dropped as we brought fewer kids into care. Now, there are many factors that play into that. I’m not saying that that is the sole factor. But I think it does cause me to question whether bringing kids in care actually increases safety.
I believe that you increase safety by increasing the capability, the resources for families, to be able to deal with their own issues. I believe that a system needs to be very intentional about understanding who they’re bringing in foster care and why. We also need to better understand why we’re keeping kids in care as long as we do. And unfortunately, I think here, one of the areas that I was not able to make as much change in as I would like to have is to clear out some of the kids that have been in our system for three years or more. That’s something this county has got to look at.