‘The worst thing that happens in the system is a child dying’ Talking with L.A.’s DCFS director

A spate of child fatalities in the Antelope Valley — Gabriel FernandezAnthony Avalos and Noah Cuatro, among others — has led to calls in recent years for more resources in the underserved region.

Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services Director Bobby Cagle and Public Affairs Manager Shiara Dávila-Morales sat down this spring with reporters from the Los Angeles Times and the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley to talk about how the agency can better support children in the region and what changes were made in response to the 2019 death of Noah Cuatro, a 4-year-old Palmdale boy.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All responses from Cagle unless otherwise noted.

Mr. Cagle, we’re wondering why you decided that Noah’s case didn’t create the need for any employee discipline?

Employee discipline is something that I do not discuss, and I can tell you this, however. … I take a look at every situation where a child’s death certainly is involved, and in other circumstances, where we have significant issues that don’t progress to this level, but do require us to look at the performance of the employees, to look at their conduct in the cases that they have. And if necessary, we do a range of things, from additional education for employees, all the way up to dismissal, in the event that that is warranted. So I assure you that the conduct of the employees in this case, we’re being very thorough, internally, and through the process with the Office of Child Protection, and the actions that we felt necessary were taken.

There is, of course, a focus on eliminating the role of caseworker bias in child welfare, but once bias was alleged, your staff didn’t appear to know what to do about it. The allegation paralyzed front-line staff and regional administrators, and led to deadly delays. Why have you been unable to implement a clear process to resolve allegations and bias when Noah was alive? And how would you expect the allegation to be handled today when one caseworker accuses another of bias?

So that’s something that really requires a supervisory and managerial response, to analyze the specifics behind the situation. There have been existing processes that handle this, whereby we bring the team together to look at the allegations, whatever the circumstance is, to determine if there is a reason, for instance, removing a caseworker from a case, or whether there is a need for a different type of engagement with the family. And those circumstances really need to be dealt with as a team. And so the processes that we have followed historically and still follow involve a team looking at this with final decision-making authority.

Would you say that that process worked in Noah’s case?

In this circumstance, without pointing to the detail on the case, there was a high-level meeting of staff, supervisors and managers. The focus of that was really on assuring that we were taking the correct actions. I think my staff actually carried that process out well. … It’s very difficult for, I think, the public especially to understand why those decisions were made, but I’m confident that the decisions that were made were the right ones. And I think that’s supported by the Office of Child Protection report that went very much into detail on that.

But just to be clear, you said that that process worked well. But what the record shows and what I think we plan on reporting is that Susan Johnson was removed on the basis that a Spanish-speaking social worker was needed for this family, despite the fact that all members of the family were English-speaking. So people are going to see that and say, “What? That doesn’t sound like a system that works. That doesn’t make sense.”

This is really getting more into the case specifics than we are prepared to go today. And so I can tell you in general, however, that it is very important that we have the cultural competency in working with families, and if there are extended family members that only speak another language, for instance, we need to have someone who is capable of communicating in a way that they are able to collect the best information possible. And so that’s a concern in all cases that we work in, and it’s not just limited to the consideration of the mother and father and the language they speak, but it can be extended to family members as well.

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