Los Angeles Leader Exits a Child Welfare System Reeling from the Pandemic

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.

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