How to fail up in child welfare: Bobby Cagle oversaw a foster-care panic when he ran child welfare in Georgia. Now he’s going to run child welfare in Los Angeles

Last November, when the federal government finally released state-by-state data on the number of children trapped in foster care the year before (yes, the feds release the data more than a year after they get it) the Associated Press reported on the grim news this way:

The number of U.S. children in foster care is climbing after a sustained decline, but just five states account for nearly two-thirds of the recent increase.

Among those states, the one with the worst record – the one in which the number of children in foster care increased at the highest rate – was Georgia.

According to the state’s own data, the number of children trapped in foster care on any given day skyrocketed 64 percent from 8,136 in September 2013 to 13,266 just three years later. As of March, 2017, the most recent month for which data are available, the figure had reached 13,348.

There was a similar surge in entries into foster care – the number of children taken from their parents over a course of year. That figure increased more than 45 percent from 2013 to 2016.

What’s been happening in Georgia since the end of 2013, the sharp, sudden surge in the number of children taken away and the number of children trapped in foster care, is a classic foster-care panic. And the man in charge of the Georgia child welfare system for almost this entire time was Bobby Cagle.

Now, Cagle has a new job. By a vote of 3 to 2, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors turned down a candidate who almost certainly would have been superior – JooYeun Chang – and decided to let Cagle bring his take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare to the largest locally-run public child welfare agency in the country, the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS).

Los Angeles already tears apart families at a rate far above the average for America’s biggest cities and their surrounding counties. Now the Supervisors are bringing in someone likely to make that record even worse.

Before Cagle, Georgia was making progress

Before Cagle took over, Georgia had reduced its rates of foster care placement and removal to among the lowest in the country. So I’m sure Cagle’s defenders will rush to haul out the most tired cliché in child welfare and inform us that the “pendulum” had swung too far.

But the evidence says otherwise. From 2006 through 2013, even as the number of Georgia children in foster care steadily declined, the key measure of child safety – the rate at which children who have been abused or neglected are maltreated again – also declined. In other words, child safety improved. In contrast, during the years of foster-care panic this measure has gotten worse.

So why the foster-care panic?

Of course Georgia officials cited drug abuse, the all-purpose excuse for skyrocketing foster care. But many states have drug problems, they don’t all let their foster-care populations increase by more than 64 percent. And while the problem of drug abuse, like the problem of child abuse, is serious and real, it does not follow that the knee-jerk solution needs to be tearing apart families.

That is a lesson we should have learned from a previous “drug plague” – crack cocaine. University of Florida researchers studied two groups of children born with cocaine in their systems; one group was placed in foster care, another left with birth mothers able to care for them.  After six months, the babies were tested using all the usual measures of infant development: rolling over, sitting up, reaching out.  Typically, the children placed with their birth mothers did better.  For the foster children, the separation from their mothers was more toxic than the cocaine.

It is extremely difficult to take a swing at so-called “bad mothers” without the blow landing on their children. That doesn’t mean we can simply leave children with hopelessly addicted parents.  But it does mean that in most cases, drug treatment for the mother is a better option than foster care for the child.

No, it’s not just drugs

But Georgia officials also cited two other reasons. Georgia is a state-run child welfare system, but individual county offices each had their own child abuse hotlines. In 2013, Georgia created a single, centralized hotline with one statewide number. Reports alleging child abuse increased sharply – presumably because of all the attendant publicity. Such publicity typically is accompanied by pleas to report anything and everything no matter how absurd.

People do just that. So there should have been greater skepticism about reports and more careful screening.  In Pennsylvania, for example, where as in California, individual counties run child welfare, after the legislature passed a series of feel-good laws in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal, reports alleging child abuse soared.  In Philadelphia, which has weak leadership, entries into foster care soared, too. But not in Pittsburgh, where the head of the county human services agency understood that the increase was likely to consist largely of false reports and trivial cases.

There is no evidence that Cagle brought the same critical eye to the surge in reports in Georgia. That’s probably because of the third factor.

As AP put it “Another factor [in Georgia] has been public outrage over some highly publicized cases in which children died from severe abuse even though caseworkers had prior indications they were at risk.”

That is, of course, the classic trigger for foster-care panics. And that is where leadership makes all the difference. Instead of refusing to be stampeded into tearing apart more families needlessly, Cagle threw gasoline on the fire. He drastically curbed a program to divert what appeared to be less serious cases to voluntary help, instead of launching full-scale child abuse investigations.  True, not every study has found that this approach, commonly called “differential response” is safe.  Only 25 out of 26 did — and many found that safety improved.

Cagle’s move further strained caseworkers, leaving them less time to give any case the careful attention it needs. That may explain why the key measure of child safety, reabuse of children known-to-the-system, actually has worsened during the foster-care panic.

The same lousy system, only bigger

Cagle’s response: a caseworker hiring binge. But if all you do is hire more workers, even as you undermine safeguards against needless removal, all you get is the same lousy system only bigger.

The foster-care panic also may have contributed to the death of a two-year-old foster child, Laila Marie Daniel. A foster-care panic creates an artificial “shortage” of foster homes, making caseworkers less likely to scrutinize those homes carefully. But while Cagle was quick to suggest that deaths of children at the hands of birth parents required systemic changes, such as curbing differential response, he dismissed the Daniel case as an aberration and fired the caseworker and supervisor handling the case.

So why would a track record like this appeal to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors?  Because Cagle is good at doing what a majority of Supervisors appear to cherish most: placating politicians and media.

Anything that smacks of “cracking down on child abuse” is popular with a press and public that reacts, rightly, with shock and horror at what a few sadistic brutes do to their children, but is largely unaware or uninterested in the enormous harm that needless foster care does in cases that are far more typical, such as cases in which family poverty is confused with “neglect.” Two massive studies have found that in typical child welfare cases children left in their own homes typically fare better even than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care.

So the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which fanned the flames of foster-care panic in Georgia much as Garrett Therolf did did when he covered that beat for the Los Angeles Times, gave Cagle a fond farewell when the L.A. appointment was announced. The quote from “Together Georgia,” a trade association for the state’s foster-care providers, is particularly gushy.

While placating the press, the pols, and the providers, Cagle made caseworkers happy by hiring more of them and by doing something genuinely constructive, giving them a raise.  But he also wasted money on a giant pay raise for foster parents – in some cases raising their pay by more than 60 percent.  That same money could have been used for child care and rent subsidies so parents didn’t lose their children in the first place because of poverty.

So it’s clear that Bobby Cagle knows how to make journalists, politicians and foster-care agencies happy. But the impoverished families of Los Angeles now have even more reason to be afraid of DCFS.

Richard Wexler is Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, This post also appears on the NCCPR Child Welfare Blog,

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