New DFCS director to review thousands of children's files to see if they're in danger

ATLANTA -- 11Alive News interviewed the new, interim Director of the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services, Bobby Cagle, Thursday afternoon.

Cagle said his first priority is to launch a review of every, single child, every case, to make sure that every child is safe, and no longer in danger of suffering injury or of dying under DFCS care.

Here are excerpts from the interview:

The governor's expectation is that I will, first and foremost, attend to the safety of the children in the state. And I think that's the basic responsibility of the department. And so the first message that I'll be delivering to senior leadership and then to staff in general on Monday is that we are to attend to child-safety, first and foremost, then ensure that we get the services for the family, either to keep the child with the family, or give them services that will help reunify them, if possible. We have to achieve permanency for children, so we will move forward in an expeditious fashion to do that.

The governor really wants much more urgency. And so what we really are going to be communicating is that there is an urgency around everything we do when children are involved, especially when children's safety is involved. And so we will be talking [with managers and staff] very much in depth about how you achieve safety, how you do it in each point in your involvement in a case. And then as we get a comfort level around safety, then we'll move on to other things in the department. But we have to have a good understanding of what safety is, make sure that we feel good that we're achieving that, and then once we are, we'll move onto other things.

We know that the safety of children is, in large measure, associated with the age of the child. So children who are five and under are more likely to be the victims of abuse and be victims in such a way that they're seriously injured or die. We also know that those cases that have multiple reports, we need to give those an additional level of scrutiny. So there are some key factors that we can identify to help us sort through the thousands and thousands of cases that are involved, to look for priority risk factors, and when we identify those, take a next look at the case to assure that we've done everything correctly, from that point forward and that point backward.

Q: What you're saying is you're going to ask the department to take another look at each and every case and report back to you and tell you [whether these children are] safe?

It is going to be a process of looking at thousands of cases, just as you're saying. And the process will be guided by priority risk factors. So we will look at those cases that have children that are very young, children that have multiple reports on their case, and cases that involve abuse. Those are the ones that pose the greatest risk of injury and death to children. So we'll look at those first, and as we work through those, then we'll work our way down in the risk factor order.

Q: Is there a difference in thinking -- on the one hand, reunite the child with the family if at all possible, or on the other hand, do what's in the best interest of the child?

I would never say reunite at all costs. What I would say is that we have a duty to try to preserve families when we can. But we can never lose sight of the fact that child safety is the number one priority. So we have to constantly assess whether the child is safe with their family. If at any point we can't assure that the child is safe, we need to remove the child, work on the functioning of the family with the child out of the home, and then work toward reunification. If the family can't meet the goals that they need to meet in order to assure safety, we have to move to another option. And that means locating the child with a relative who can become an adoptive relative or a guardian, or if that's not available, move on to other options such as adoptive families.

I'm looking at, really, a 90-day plan right now. And my plan is to look at three priority areas within the child welfare system, starting with child welfare intake. So you have to be able to take the reports, assign a level of priority to those if they constitute abuse or neglect, and then assign those out. The second piece of the system is the investigation. So you have to, once you take the report, get out and investigate the case, see the child, speak with the family, and also speak with anybody else that has information on the case. Once we've done that, we have to satisfy ourselves within a short period of time as to whether the child is safe with the family or not. That should be done within 30 days, in most cases. And then beyond that, if we can't assure safety, we move to our family interventions where we actually work with the family on a case plan, with the child either in or out of the home. So those three areas are really the priority areas, in that order.

If you're in child welfare and your heart does not break when you see a child harmed, you need to go into something else. And I have been extremely concerned, as has the governor, and I think this is really both his commitment and mine to assure that we're doing the things that we need to do that are in the best interests of children, always, and always with the focus on safety.

Q: We've seen a lot of directors come and go at that agency in recent years. How do we know that something is finally going to change, something's finally going to be fixed?

The proof is in the pudding. You have to hold me accountable to what I tell you I'm going to do, and I am more than happy to be accountable to the public for what I do, as well as be accountable to the governor. If at any point in time he sees that I'm not being effective doing the things I tell him I'm going to do, he will remove me and he should remove me.

Q: You have the title of interim director. Has the governor told you what the transition might be, if you would be named permanent director, and, if so, in what period of time?

The thought here is that I will do this work for a period of about six months so that we get a good handle on safety, but at the same time we're assessing what we can do at the department.

His clear direction to me is that we will achieve safety, and if we don't do that, then I have no guarantee of being director or interim director or anything else. I have to do the job, I have to be accountable for it, and that's what I'm going to do.


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