The beginning of December 2017 saw the introduction of a new director at the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), Bobby Cagle, who is now leading the largest child welfare system in the country after serving as the commissioner of Georgia’s Division of Family and Children Services. He arrives in Los Angeles well-regarded and experienced in the challenges facing child welfare systems nationally. In a recent article in The Chronicle of Social Change, Director Cagle was described not only as experienced but knowledgeable about the critical dilemma facing child welfare, which is how to balance keeping families together while ensuring child safety.
After years of declining numbers of children entering foster care, the number of children in care has risen 12% nationally and about 10% in Los Angeles County over the last five years. Some suggest that better reporting and greater awareness has led to the increase, along with an ever-escalating substance use crisis. Risk factors such as domestic violence also contribute to an increase in cases. However, a fundamental question on the part of policy makers and child welfare leadership of whether to emphasize child safety over family preservation can also be a contributing factor.
Policy makers disagree on the merits of disrupting a family in favor of keeping a child safe. The trauma generated by removal from the home is countered by the trauma of being place in an unfamiliar setting, leaving advocates at odds and social workers looking for direction on how to best make such a critical decision.
We struggle with the issue constantly at Hillsides as we strive to reunite families, aware of the safety risks that may be present in our residents’ homes. This dilemma was poignantly evident on Christmas Eve at the annual celebration at the Langham Huntington, Pasadena sponsored by our Hillsides Volunteer Network for the children in our residential program. Thirty-five of our 54 residents were present, a number that has grown steadily each year. More and more we err on the side of safety, preferring day-long visits on Christmas Day to overnight stays on Christmas Eve because of concerns that safety cannot be assured in some of our residents’ homes. In spite of our caution, family reunification must be the goal for which we strive.
It is not a matter of favoring one approach over another, but rather the balance that must be maintained as we strive to restore families and offer hope of a full life for both the child and the family.
It is good to know that the new DCFS director is not an ideologue fixated on one approach but rather a leader who is experienced in addressing this critical issue and open to creating systems that partner with families and the community to achieve the best for all those served through child welfare. (To learn more about Cagle’s vision, please read his January 4, 2018 interview with KPCC here.)
We welcome Director Cagle and look forward to working with him so that together we can help all those we serve heal, grow, and thrive.