Child-safety chief sees job’s challenge and necessity

Bobby Cagle

Appointed in 2011 commissioner of Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning

Background: Director of legislative and external affairs for the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services; DFCS family services director; deputy director of youth and family services, Mecklenburg County Department of Social Services, Charlotte; director, Graham County Department of Social Services, Robbinsville, N.C.; judicial district manager, North Carolina Department of Correction; social worker.

Education: Bachelor of arts in political science and sociology and master of social work, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

As newly appointed chief of Georgia’s child-protection agency, Bobby Cagle faces the daunting task of turning around the embattled system following recent highly publicized deaths of two children.

Just days into the job, Cagle already this week has had to answer tough questions about the death of a 5-year-old girl, acknowledging agency workers in the case have been taken off duties involving interaction with families or safety of a child.

“The emphasis has to be on the safety of the child,” said Cagle in an extensive interview with the AJC this week. “Unfortunately you can never reduce all risk … you try to bring risk down as far as you can so children are less likely to be injured.”

Child advocates, lawmakers and child care providers say Cagle’s up for the difficult job of leading the Division of Family and Children Services and is intent on wiping out agency mistakes that have contributed to child-abuse tragedies.

As commissioner of the state’s Department of Early Care and Learning for the past three years, Cagle’s been lauded for his work overseeing Georgia’s pre-kindergarten program, though AJC investigative reports found flaws in the agency’s oversight of day care programs during Cagle’s tenure there.

With 25 years of experience dealing with child welfare and early childhood education issues – including a stint as the legislative liaison for DFCS – Cagle, 47, has worked at nearly every level of the system, from social worker to department administrator. He’s also a product of the child welfare system himself, having been adopted when he was 10 months old to parents in North Carolina.

Cagle says he has a deeply personal stake in protecting children, and observers say one of his strengths is “consensus building,” getting different stakeholders — child advocates, lawmakers, child care providers – to work together.

“He’s a very inclusive leader,” said Pat Willis, executive director of the child advocacy group Voices for Georgia’s Children. “He does have a strong background in child welfare. I really hope he brings to the child welfare system what he has learned about the system of early care and learning (at DECAL) so that we can have a much more preventive approach to child abuse and neglect.”

Carolyn Salvador, executive director for the Georgia Child Care Association, composed of 900 licensed child care facilities throughout the state, said while Cagle led the state’s early care and learning agency, day care centers and other child care providers he oversaw were generally supportive of his initiatives.

“There’s always going to be some kind of tension,” Salvador said. “We were really very pleased from the beginning when he took over as commissioner … He saw providers as partners. We all really were working to improve quality in the state and it would be much better if we pulled together … as opposed to kind of seeing each other as opposite sides of the table.”

But Cagle’s tenure with DECAL has not been entirely blemish-free. Among the findings of AJC investigative reports in 2012: Nearly 2,500 day care programs in Georgia had failed to meet the state’s standards for children’s health and safety at least once in the past four years.

Following the coverage, DECAL began implementing a new state law requiring all employees of Georgia’s child care programs to undergo a national criminal background check based on fingerprints. The regulation before 2014 required a criminal background check based only on an employee’s name.

In addition, the state agency implemented a voluntary, three-star rating system of child care centers, to help parents gauge their quality.

Not long after Gov. Nathan Deal appointed Cagle commissioner of DECAL in 2011, the governor declared major changes had to be made to ensure the long-term survival of Georgia’s pre-k program. Cagle oversaw close to $50 million in cuts to the lottery-funded program, though much of that has been recouped since the end of the recession.

Steve Barnett, director of National Institute for Early Education Research, said Georgia’s historically strong pre-k program faltered during the recession. The state has slipped compared to other states in both access and funding. The state ranks eighth for 4-year-old enrollment, reaching 58 percent of students. Enrollment declined by 1,100 students in 2012-2013.

Barnett said Cagle guided the pre-k program through tough economic times and says it’s gradually returning to its pre-recession status.

“That’s (DFCS) a very tough agency to be in because there’s a lot of potential for things to go wrong,” Barnett said. “And there’s zero tolerance for failure. He (Cagle) has a good combination of expert knowledge and political skills. You need both of those to have any chance of succeeding at this job. It’s got to be one of the toughest jobs in state government.”

Deal’s appointment of Cagle last week to the DFCS post drew mixed reactions from child welfare advocates. Some saw it as the correct action following the highly publicized deaths of two children and reports in the AJC that agency mistakes contributed to at least 25 deaths in 2012.

The high-stakes post of DFCS chief has had a revolving door in recent years, with Cagle being the fourth since 2011. The agency is chiefly responsible for investigating reports of child abuse and neglect, determining whether children should be removed from their parents’ custody and placed into the state’s foster care system.

Deal has previously backed a plan to spend $27 million over the next three years to hire more than 500 caseworkers and supervisors for the agency.

Cagle says the governor has directed him to take a more aggressive approach to protecting children, which could send more children into the state's foster care system. The governor and lawmakers are betting he can turn around the agency's failures.

“I thought long and hard about this even well before the governor asked me to do this,” Cagle said. “It’s an incredibly hard job. I come here with eyes wide open … I pretty well know the problems from the inside.”

“I’ve always been very thankful for the fact that there were social workers that worked on my case (as a child) and found me just a wonderful family. I’ve always been very thankful for what somebody else did for me, and actually chose social work out of college because I wanted to be able to give back.”

“I plan to be here until the governor tells me he doesn’t want me anymore. That’s my commitment.”