Gov. Nathan Deal recently tapped Bobby Cagle to be the new director of the Division of Family and Children Services.
If history repeats itself, as it always seems to do with the long-troubled agency, Cagle will be filling a box with personal possessions as he leaves in April 2016.
It’s the state’s most impossible, no-win, politically dangerous job, a position almost certain to end in failure and frustration. Since 1997, Cagle is at least the 10th (it’s hard to keep an exact count) director of the agency charged with overseeing the safety of Georgia’s children. It’s like “Groundhog Day”; that is, if the movie featured battered and burned children.
The drama runs like this: governor picks a new director who is enthusiastic and (pick one) an outsider, an experienced insider, young and vigorous, a maverick, or focused like a laser. Then a child will inevitably die a terrible death that critics say could have been prevented but really couldn’t have because Georgia produces an endless supply of at-risk kids but a limited amount of money to oversee their dysfunctional families.
Then, that director will move on and the governor will stand in front of cameras with a new, enthusiastic appointee who is (pick one) an outsider, an experienced insider, young and vigorous, a maverick, or focused like a laser. Or sometimes government higher-ups will just stick in someone to fill time and a year will roll by.
Cagle headed the Department of Early Care and Learning where he apparently served capably. His mission is to boldly move forward and, if need be, send more children into foster care instead of trying to patch up their unfixable families.
In 24 years in Georgia, I have spent lots of time writing about Georgia’s broken families and what broke them: drugs, violence, joblessness, apathy. And many treat their children worse than they would their outside dog.
In late 1999, I wrote about DFCS alongside Jane O. Hansen, who over the years uncovered horror story after horror story. The latest at the time was the tragic tale of 5-year-old Terrell Peterson, who was starved and beaten to death even though the agency was repeatedly warned of his plight.
‘Fresh start’ with an ‘innovative’ leader
Then-Director Peg Peters, a veteran social worker who two years earlier was touted as an “innovative” leader, moved on. Gov. Roy Barnes wanted a “fresh start.”
Peters’ deputy, Steve Love, was moved to the top slot as interim but was shuffled out almost immediately after a news report detailed systemic failures he had a decade earlier heading a county agency.
Ultimately, Barnes picked an “outsider,” Juanita Blount-Clark, who he said would have “fresh eyes” and conduct “a thorough re-examination of its personnel and operations from the ground up.” She was an “outsider,” in the sense that she didn’t work for DFCS, but she had worked for two decades in another state agency.
In August 2003, there was a new horror story — 2-year-old Kyshawn Punter was beaten to death by his stepfather. The boy had suffered grievously in his short, brutish life. There were healed burn scars on his abdomen and penis but a juvenile court judge and DFCS returned the boy home. Weeks later, he was dead.
Pressure mounted for Blount-Clark’s head. “When you have a failing football team like this, you blame the coach,” a child-rights lawyer said.
A month after the revelation, Coach Blount-Clark and her boss, Department of Human Resources Commissioner Jim Martin, were gone.
One child-rights advocate likened the move to “rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.”
The newest death caused DFCS to investigate how caseworkers weigh the risk posed to children, how they monitor those children and how they close cases.
‘Do I need to put an exclamation point on that?’
At the time, caseworkers were overloaded and could not keep up with the never-ending demand.
Georgia’s new Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue took it personally. He and his wife were foster parents.
“If anyone in the state believes that I or my wife will sit back and let kids die, they are dead wrong,” Perdue told a reporter, his voice rising and his face turning red. “Do I need an exclamation point on that?”
Sonny was going to get tough. He appointed Janet Oliva, a GBI agent who had been the state’s Officer of the Year and had created a child abuse investigation unit. She would dig in and root out these cases of abuse. Children who were beaten, molested and starved would not be returned to their hellish existence all for the sake of family reunification. But her get-tough mantra increased caseloads and overloaded workers.
A year later, in 2004, Oliva was replaced by higher-ups, who cited her lack of experience in child welfare and social work policy.
It took another year to find a replacement. This time, the governor went with experience, 60-year-old Mary Dean Harvey, the former head of Nebraska’s social services agency, who had three decades in the field. “She’s been there, done that and she’s going to do it again here in Georgia,” Perdue vowed.
Two-and-a-half years later, in 2008, AJC story Craig Schneider, a veteran of writing about dead kids, wrote: “The state child welfare director, who had become a lightning rod for ongoing turmoil in the department, has resigned.”
Months before, 2-year-old Nateyonna Banks was killed after being returned to her home. Her mother, who had mental problems, was charged with killing her. Also, caseworkers complained that Harvey berated them — and caused them to worry they’d be fired — after they confirmed findings that a high-ranking child welfare official had abused her daughter.
“It’s terrible for the system,” a longtime child advocate said of the ouster. “There’s no long-term leadership or long-term direction.”
Hire a new guy, cut the budget some more
So Perdue, who already tried “outside the box” and then older and experienced, next turned to youthful energy in the form of Mark A. Washington, 38, the former head of Kentucky’s child welfare system.
A collapsing economy meant that DFCS faced “severe budget cuts, which threaten staffing levels and services.” Still, Washington remained “optimistic,” the newspaper reported.
Twenty two months later, in September 2010, Washington, having seen wholesale cuts in his department, left for a faith-based nonprofit.
His bosses said they would let the job go unfilled for a time. Four months later, in January 2011, in-coming Gov. Nathan Deal handpicked former prosecutor Rachelle Carnesale.
Someone hard-nosed with a law enforcement pedigree could get things done.
By December, she vanished, with officials mysteriously declining to say much about her departure.
“I thought she was on a good path,” a child advocate said.
Once again, it was next-man-up. Deputy Ron Scroggy stepped up as officials said they would search for a permanent director.
Smart, knows the landscape, has good ideas, etc.
Four months later, in April 2012, the AJC wrote that the agency’s budget had been slashed by 28 percent over five years. At the same time, Scroggy was pushing increased safety by opening thousands more investigations and taking hundreds more kids into foster care.
The result? You guessed it. “The system is strained to its limits,” a child advocate said.
In June 2012, 16-year-old Markea Berry died of starvation, weighing 43 pounds. Her case had been investigated by DFCS caseworkers, who closed the case prematurely. Scroggy said it should have remained open and Markea should not have died.
Soon, he too was gone.
If this were a war movie, the battered, wounded soldier would be limping away from the front as the fresh-faced recruit hurried to take his place in the foxhole.
Enter Sharon Hill, Scroggy’s replacement. Once again — smart, knows the landscape, has ideas to fix things.
“I’m not sure that we have made the best use of the people, the tools that we do have,” she told WSB a few months into the job. “Quite often we’ve developed strategies, but we don’t always fully execute on those strategies and continue to follow up.”
By now, you know how this goes.
This time, it was 5-year-old Heaven Woods who died from blows to her stomach, even though people repeatedly reported to the state the girl or her siblings were being abused. The mother and her boyfriend are charged with murder.
Now Hill is out of that job, moving to the state budget agency.
But, to me, that seems like a relief — keeping track of the state’s money sure beats accounting for dead children.
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