New LA Child Welfare Chief Bobby Cagle to Find High Demand, Too Few Foster Homes

LOS ANGELES — Bobby Cagle, a former foster child and caseworker, is set to take over as head of Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) starting Dec. 1 as part of ongoing efforts to curb long-running issues within the nation’s largest child welfare system.

“What having been director [of the Division of Family and Children Services] in Georgia will do is give me a leg up on the fact that that is a very large system,” Cagle said in an interview in his Atlanta office. “LA County is composed of about 10.2 million residents, almost the same size as Georgia, in a very compact area.”

His first priorities are “assessment of the system and the relationships with the key stakeholders in the community that are really vital to us being able to do the work,” he said.

The Board of Supervisors is already working on the size of caseloads and promoting kinship care, Cagle said. “The nice thing in LA is that the Board of Supervisors already arrived at the conclusion that kinship care is a vital component and that they need to move in that direction,” he said. “My encouragement will just be joining into the chorus.”

As for caseloads, “One of the things … that every system deals with is the size of caseloads,” Cagle said. “The trauma you experience in everyday work, even at a normal size caseload, is multiplied when you look at caseloads that are too large.”

Another major concern is “the number of visitations that have to occur as well as the difficulties they have with traffic and also the distance that children have to be transported to do the visitations,” he said.

“Cagle has worked in child welfare, substance abuse, early education, and social services for nearly 30 years, which has prepared him to handle critical incidents, community engagement, the courts, and thrive within the unique challenges and opportunities of working in Los Angeles County,” said Supervisor Hilda L. Solis in a statement made at Cagle’s appointment in September.

She voted in favor of appointing him in a 3-2 vote of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Cagle will succeed former director Philip Browning, who retired after serving as director for five years.

The appointment comes four years after the 2013 death of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez, who remained in his home despite several investigations into reports of abuse by his mother.

Since then, DCFS has continued to face challenges of mismanagement, high caseloads and a shortage of foster homes.

According to Wende Nichols-Julien, chief executive officer of Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children of Los Angeles, the most pressing issue facing Cagle is the crisis of too few foster families and family environments for children.

DCFS serves more than 30,000 children each month, with more than half in out-of-home placement. This number is steadily rising each year while out-of-home resources are declining.  According to the DCFS 2015-16 Biennial Report, the number of foster care resources, including family and group homes, has dropped by 52 percent from 2005 to 2015.

“We need to meet the shortage of foster care placements head-on by recruiting but also partnering with and supporting families in an ongoing way,” said Amy Heibel, communications director of the Alliance for Children’s Rights.

As director of DCFS, Cagle will oversee nearly 4,800 social workers, 2,000 of whom were hired under Browning between 2015 and 2016 as part of the department’s effort to lower caseloads and reform the system following Fernandez’ death.

Cagle faced a similar situation on his appointment to his previous position as director of the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) in 2014 after two cases of children dying the previous year.

“The work is just very disturbing sometimes,” Cagle said. “You see things done to children that you cannot even imagine …When I was a caseworker and my caseload got too large, I would lose sleep. … We have to recognize that those factors are all present anywhere that you’re doing social work in the child welfare system. … We have to do things to compensate for that the best we can.”

Throughout the last three years, he has been applauded for his work at DFCS. While director, he was credited with reducing the state’s backlog of child protection investigations by ordering mandatory overtime for DFCS investigators, increasing staff and pay for frontline workers, decreasing caseloads and increasing reimbursements for foster parents.

During his leadership, the state also experienced a dramatic increase in the number of children in foster care, going from 7,600 in 2013 to 13,200 in 2016.

Tom C. Rawlings, director of the Georgia Office of the Child Advocate, thinks this increase is due to Cagle’s “stable and transparent” leadership, which led to a more efficient and responsive system.

“It’s not been what we’d hoped to see, but in some ways it’s been an indication of his success rather than his failure,” Rawlings said. “While we never like to see any dramatic increase because it means we’re taking too many children into care, in this case I think it actually means we have been better at recognizing cases.”

In April 2017, another high-profile child death hit DFCS when 10-year-old Kentae Williams died after reports of abuse by his adopted father. The case led to the firing of three DFCS workers, one of whom had only two years of experience on the job, a result of high caseworker turnover within DFCS, deputy division director Virginia Pryor said.

Declining to comment further on Cagle’s appointment, Solis said in her statement that her decision to approve him came from conversations with foster youth, who “told us that they wanted someone who is from foster care, is culturally competent, believes in safely keeping families together whenever possible, can build relationships in the community, and had skills and experience working across sectors.”

Solis also noted in her statement that child welfare advocates said they “wanted someone who had ‘on the ground’ experience in child welfare, a track record of public-private partnership, recognized the role of counsel and the courts, and held a genuine belief in strengthening at-risk families.”

Cagle is noted for his work with early childhood education as former commissioner of Bright From the Start: Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning. He has also expressed understanding of issues affecting immigrant children, LGBTQ youth and homelessness within the child welfare system.

“[Cagle] was the only candidate who emphasized the disproportionate harms facing LGBT youth in the system,” Solis said in her statement.

Still, the landscape Cagle faces in Los Angeles County is shaky, and undergoing recurring scrutiny.

A report by the California State Los Angeles School of Criminalistics and Criminal Justice and the Children’s Data Network at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work analyzed the connection between children touched by DCFS and the proportion of youth with probation involvement.

The study found that four out of five probation-involved youth in Los Angeles had received at least one referral to child protective services for suspected maltreatment, many with their first referral during early childhood.

Los Angeles County has one of the largest juvenile justice systems in the country, with more than half the juvenile justice population with open mental health cases in 2015. The relationship between early childhood mental health and youth incarceration is one researchers are now investigating as reason for better child welfare practices.

“We must be mindful of the maltreatment and family instability these youth have experienced,” said Emily Putnam-Hornstein, director of Children’s Data Network and co-author of the report. “LA County is deeply engaged in prevention planning — the momentum is really tremendous. Continued leadership from DCFS under Director Cagle will be critical.”

Heibel agreed the child welfare system has an important role to play in preventative care and as a continuum of care for children and young people.

“We know that children thrive when they can maintain healthy connections and grow up in stable homes that can provide for all of their needs and help them recover from trauma,” she said. “Under Cagle’s leadership, we hope that we will continue to make progress toward supporting caregivers who step up to provide stable, loving homes for children who cannot remain with their biological parents.”

Roger Newton contributed to this story.

This story has been updated.

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Our Coverage of National Debate Over Undocumented Youth, DACA

Both Youth Today and the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange have been covering the changing fate of Dreamers since before the Dreamer program began.

Here is a solid sampling of what we’ve written, photographed and captured on video.

More highlights from this coverage:

We Must Stop the Politics of Hate

Resource Guide Shows Ways to Support Undocumented Students

Finding Hope: Shepherding Un(der) Documented Students to a Thriving Life After High School

Family Separation a Big Issue for Kids Migrating from Central America

Advocates Built Support for Maryland DREAM Act ‘One Person at a Time’

Comics Journalism Tackles the Immigration Debate

Why Immigration Policy Should Matter to Youth-Serving Systems

Marie WilliamsImmigration policy, once thought of as almost purely a federal government issue has, in the past several years, become one of increasingly local concern. During the 2016 presidential election cycle in particular, the complicated policy issues surrounding the undocumented population became oversimplified and were reduced to sound bites about “criminal aliens,” “sanctuary cities” and fears of imminent terrorist attacks on the “homeland.”

The candidate who became president called for the building of a physical barrier between the United States and its southernmost neighbor, and the creation of a deportation force to swiftly exclude those who made it into the United States without a legal immigration status, stoking fears among some of our most egregiously underserved groups, including noncitizen children and children with undocumented parents.

Throughout this period, the immigration conversation focused largely on adults who might do harm to the United States. Discussions about children were had primarily in the context of their parents’ status, and the threat to youth who benefited from DACA, the Deferred Action for Undocumented Childhood Arrivals program implemented under the Obama administration.

The tenor of the policy debate rarely, if ever, touched on the effect that draconian immigration policy may have on children who are at risk of, or already involved in, the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. These two layered and complex systems become even more so when one adds the specter of adverse immigration actions (detention or deportation) directed at either a noncitizen child, or children who are U.S.-born, but who have an undocumented parent (i.e., mixed-status families).

Who are these children and youth?

During any given calendar year, the majority (well over 65 percent) of undocumented children come from Mexico and Central America, about 10 percent come from East Asia and the Pacific, just over 10 percent come from Europe, eight percent from Africa, eight percent from the Middle East and South Asia, and just over four percent come from Southeast Asia. Most will come with, or develop, deep and ingrained fears about interacting with official agencies. Or, worse yet, they will have been rendered invisible to public systems by adults who seek to exploit them. And if fortunate enough to live with a parent or caring adult, the suspicion or fear of authorities could delay or deny children in these families the services or supports they may need.

Why should child welfare and juvenile justice systems care about immigration policy?

Immigration policy touches a large percentage of young people in the United States. Twenty-three percent of children in the U.S. are either immigrants or children of immigrants. While many of them may have been born in the United States, some have parents who do not have legal immigrant status; and some of the children are themselves without legal status. And immigrant children, whether documented or not, are among the most vulnerable.

Those who are unaccompanied by an adult when they immigrate (“unaccompanied minors”) may be victimized by smugglers who bring them to the United States to work as domestic servants, restaurant or factory workers, or to engage in drug-trafficking or sex work. Government estimates of people trafficked into the United States range widely, from 14,000 to 50,000 each year. The State Department estimates that up to half of trafficking victims are minors.

Since they are often marginalized, or “invisible” to public systems, these young people are particularly high-need. They are more likely to live in poverty, less likely to have health insurance and are more likely to encounter barriers to accessing public benefits and social services. Further, since many are fleeing economic deprivation, political violence or unrest in their home countries, immigrant youth are also more likely to have suffered trauma. And certainly, the immigration process itself, particularly if done illegally, comes with its own stressors and associated trauma.

Additionally, families with one or more adult who are undocumented are no less susceptible to the challenges that lead to child abuse and neglect, domestic violence, mental and behavioral health issues, or delinquency. While these challenges might, under the best of circumstances, lead a family to seek out supports and services, this is less likely to happen in a household where adults or children do not have legal immigrant status. Predictably, the needs could become more acute, and the triggering event that leads to system involvement could be more severe.

There are currently no reliable data about youth in the juvenile justice and child welfare systems. Despite our knowledge about the existence of this population of high-need children and youth, child welfare and juvenile justice systems still have no reliable data about them. This state of ignorance is worsened by the fact that most systems lack the resources to implement this kind of data collection, may not view that information as relevant or simply recognize that in the current highly politicized immigration policy climate, this information could imperil the same families and young people they seek to serve.

Action steps for youth-serving systems

As the immigration debate plays out on the national stage, the needs of undocumented youth and children or youth and children from mixed-status families continues to grow. So, at a minimum, youth-serving systems now have a duty to investigate whether they are adequately serving this population. At a minimum, systems should:

  • Determine the scale and scope of the issue in their communities. Since undocumented children, youth and families are adept at maneuvering through society largely undetected, they may present as yet another child, youth or family in need. Systems may then see a reluctance to accept services, poor follow-up with services offered and general inaccessibility, without comprehending why. If they discover that those challenges are due to fears about immigration actions, systems will be better equipped to provide services to those in need if their fears are allayed.
  • Clarify policy, processes and practices for undocumented and noncitizen youth and their families. The sanctuary city conversation in particular has led to widespread confusion about whether federal law requires local youth-serving systems to enforce federal immigration laws by detaining youth who are without lawful status, absent another lawful justification for that detention. It does not. Further, systems should consider whether the processes and practices they have in place are adequate to ensure access to services by noncitizen youth and their families, and address these deficiencies if they are not.
  • Educate and train relevant staff and stakeholders, including families, on the common forms of immigration relief for noncitizen youth. Noncitizen and undocumented youth have several forms of relief available to them through which they may achieve lawful permanent residence. Child welfare and juvenile justice systems are generally not equipped to pursue these remedies, but should consider actively partnering with organizations that are, and making connections to youth and their families that may need this help.

While the complexities of the intersection between immigration policy may seem daunting to youth-serving systems, one thing is clear: Youth-serving systems can no longer remain willfully ignorant about this area of acute need.

Marie N. Williams, J.D., is senior program officer at the Stoneleigh Foundation. Before that she was immediate past executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice and a longtime advocate for social justice causes.