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The future of LA's foster care system

Bobby Cagle (right) reads to a group of children. Cagle is the new head of LA County's Department of Children and Family Services.
Bobby Cagle (right) reads to a group of children. Cagle is the new head of LA County's Department of Children and Family Services.
via LA County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl

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There are more than 30,000 children in the Los Angeles County foster care system, and the Department of Children and Family Services is responsible for their welfare. But the agency has been under fire in recent years.

In 2013, eight-year-old Gabriel Fernandez died after suffering horrific torture by his mother and her boyfriend. Several social workers investigated claims of abuse at the boy's Palmdale home but decided he should stay there. Criminal charges were filed against four DCFS employees related to the case. 

Under this cloud, the department has a new leader. In December, Bobby Cagle, stepped into his role as the director of DCFS. A Martínez sat down with Cagle to discussed his plans for the agency.

Interview Highlights:

What are your first impressions of the L.A. Department of Child and Family Services?

BOBBY CAGLE: This department's practices are advanced. Many of its programs are models for the country. I'm still learning, but I'm impressed with my first look at things.

What's your first big challenge?

CAGLE: Getting into the community will be the biggest challenge. I really want to approach this by learning rather than coming in with a prescribed approach. Part of that is about talking to as many people as possible who are interested in child welfare. Also, talking to as many of my 9,300 staffers as possible.

You were commissioner of Georgia's Division of Family and Children's Services, which has seen an increase of children in foster care: 9,000 in June of 2014 to 13,000 in March of 2017. In your opinion, does foster care make kids safer?

CAGLE: It can. I come from a different place on this subject because I was in foster care. Foster care, when done well, is good for kids, especially when they come from difficult situations which we see often. The key to doing social work well is having time to develop a relationship with families where trust is established. Failing that compromises our ability to do good work.

What if you take a kid out of a bad situation and aren't putting them in a safe place? How do you balance the complexities of removing kids from an unsafe home?

CAGLE: The data shows that children are rarely maltreated in the foster care system. However, just removing a child, even from a bad situation, is extremely traumatic. So we have to balance that knowledge. 

Do you have a long-term plan for transitioning kids out of foster care? In L.A. the system has become a kind of feeder to homelessness.

CAGLE: The very same thing was a concern in Georgia. And we have been looking at ways to ease the transition in L.A., making sure that we're available to youth after they turn 18 and up to age 21. We can provide services for them. They can remain in our care, and we try to keep those kids as close as we can. We're trying to make sure they have the kind of skill set to operate as an adult--both with hard and soft skills and graduating high school and college.

One of the most high profile cases involving DCFS over the last few years was that of Gabriel Fernandez, an 8-year-old Palmdale boy who was tortured and killed by his mother's boyfriend. What was your reaction to this case?

CAGLE: Honestly, I try to take things I see in the media with a grain of salt, because often, the true things that have happened can't be released. But in this case, it was obvious that there were failures on the part of people who should have been protecting that child. And to its credit, the department owned up to that. That's an important part of being a good department. The public has to be able to trust us, and if we make a mistake, we've got to own that and tell the public how we're going to do things differently going forward.

What's the tipping point to take a child out of their home?

CAGLE: The most difficult thing I've ever done is remove a child from a home. You would think that, given some of the poor circumstances in which children are raised, that they would be happy to have someone take them out of that situation. In the very worst circumstances, I have taken children out of homes kicking and screaming with the assistance of law enforcement because kids love their families no matter what...

The tipping point for me as a social worker, when I did removals, was the moment when I could not guarantee myself that that child would be safe the next time I came in. If I left there with any doubts, I would opt for removal. The flipside of that is the judges who look at the legal standards around this and are intent on scrutinizing everything to make sure the removal is absolutely necessary and meets that legal standard, which is a good thing for us.  

*Interview has been edited for clarity.