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Torpy at Large: Will DFCS leader continue to be disposable?

Gov. Nathan Deal just appointed longtime child advocate Tom Rawlings as interim director of the Division of Family and Children Services, a job also known as Human Cannon Fodder.

Heading the agency charged with protecting vulnerable kids in awful homes is arguably the toughest and most frustrating job the state has to offer. The gig often explodes in the face of the dutiful leader, despite his or her drive, experience or good intentions.

In June 2014, Deal picked child welfare vet Bobby Cagle to lead the agency and change its culture after a couple of publicized deaths of children. I had the hunch we were hearing the same story, another chapter: Child death, outrage, governor under fire, new leader, bold direction.

I went back through AJC files and found that Cagle was (at least) the 10th director since 1997. I figured that if history was a guidepost, then Deal would be would be replacing him in April 2016. We called the column, “DFCS chief: Georgia’s most disposable leader.

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But I was wrong. Instead of surviving the 22-month average, Cagle left last November after 41 months to take a similar job in Los Angeles with a sweet bump in pay. He was like a unicorn in the child protection world. He left DFCS on his own terms.

Cagle’s deputy took the job but left last month. So, in walks Rawlings, a former juvenile court judge who’s twice served as the state’s Child Advocate (ombudsman) and has, at times, criticized the agency he will now lead.

“I’ve been able to be the roving prophet and go tell leadership what needs to be done,” the modern day Ezekiel told me.

Of course, getting things done is always more difficult than telling others how.

Rawlings gets good reviews from those in the field as an outsider who knows the system. He inherits an agency seemingly on an upswing.

The budget, gutted during the recession, has doubled in six years. The number of front-line caseworkers has increased 25 percent from when Cagle came in (now more than 2,000). Caseworker pay is up, morale is said to be better, annual attrition has dropped from 32 percent to 19 percent and the average worker’s caseload has been reduced to 19 cases.

Then-DFCS Director Bobby Cagle talks with the Atlanta Journal Constitution editorial board on February 2, 2016. KENT D. JOHNSON/ AJC (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Cagle had the governor’s ear and support and that helped bring some stability to the staff.

However, the state is among the leaders nationally in the growth of kids housed in foster care. In June 2014, when Cagle came to the job, Georgia had a little more than 8,000 kids in foster homes. In June, there were 15,000.

Normer Adams, former director of a group representing private foster homes, said “when DFCS is in crisis mode, rather than (going) the family-centric management mode, they’ll jerk the kid out of the home to keep the child safe. The saying goes, ‘No one’s ever been fired for taking a kid out of the home and into foster care.’ “

But they have been fired for ignoring warnings of danger or leaving children too long with families, only to have something bad happen. Being “family centric,” — that is working with dysfunctional families to create a safe, healthy environment — takes time, effort and is a risky proposition.

“The front-line workers are getting beat up,” Adams said. “They have to make life-and-death decisions and have to be clairvoyant about future abuse.”

Melissa D. Carter, an Emory professor who once worked for Rawlings in the advocate’s office, said the child protection field has been a series of pendulum swings: Foster care was high, so there’s a push to get kids back to families because it’s better for them. But then there were more deaths, so caseworkers were quicker to yank kids from homes, building up the foster care population.

Carter said one explanation is the prevalence of the opioid epidemic. But before that, there was meth, and crack. There’s always something.

Emani Moss was 10 when her starved, burned body was found outside her family’s Lawrenceville apartment. State child protection workers received a report she was being abused, but assigned a low priority to the case that didn’t require an in-person investigation.   (HANDOUT PHOTO)

Rawlings, in an interview, said the foster care population jumped partly because DFCS put a central intake hotline into service, causing reports of abuse and neglect to jump. He says he remembers in 2003, when he was a juvenile judge, the state had 94,000 such reports. In fiscal 2017, there were 122,000.

“Foster care is not necessarily the best tool in the long run,” Rawlings said. “You’re causing the children additional trouble by removing them from the home.”

DFCS workers have always operated on terror, fear that something can go wrong with a child and he or she would be castigated.

“There was a culture that when things go bad, find a scapegoat, push that person out and say things are better,” Rawlings said. But he said the agency is trying to be more open, so workers don’t try to hide mistakes or bad results.

This is Laila Marie Daniel, a little girl who died in foster care. She is pictured with her biological mother, Tessa Clendening. The state Division of Family and Children Services removed Laila and her sister from their mother and placed them in foster care in April 2015. Authorities say the girl was killed by the woman caring for her in foster care. (HANDOUT PHOTO)

“If you make a mistake, tell us. We’re going to support you,” he said. “This is an uncertain field. You have to make judgment calls about the child’s safety and the parents’ efforts to work with you. We have to give the street-level bureaucrats discretion.”

Rawlings knows what he’s getting into. “It’s like college football coaches, they’re hired to be fired,” he said. “I wanted it because a lot of people consider it a thankless, miserable job.”

The job is complex, all consuming and jarringly difficult.

“What child welfare needs more than anything else is stability,” Rawlings said. “You can make gradual, incremental improvement under steady leadership.”

Professor Carter agrees, “The instability in the leadership is the Achilles heal of the system. There’s an inherent political liability to the job. Also, it wears on people in their own commitment and endurance.”

The question now is that no matter how much this governor supports the new DFCS chief, another will take office in January.

So, will Stacey Abrams or Brian Kemp try and keep some continuity? I’m sure they’d say all the right things — “I’m there for the children…” But who knows?

Normer Adams is hopeful. But he’s realistic.

“If history is the gauge,” he said, “the new governor is going to bring in someone who will protect him.”

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