Bobby Cagle, director of the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services, spent several days in Columbus meeting with stakeholders this past week.
While in town, Cagle explained the nuts and bolts of a Blueprint for Change initiative, which aims to increase quality staffing, strengthen families and foster community engagement around child welfare issues. He also shared his personal story as a product of the North Carolina child welfare system.
During a Thursday interview with Ledger-Enquirer Reporter Alva James-Johnson, Cagle talked about his life growing up, persistent poverty in the community and his passion for the job. Here are excerpts from the conversation with some content and questions edited for length and clarity.
Q: You spent several days in Columbus meeting with people in the community. How would you describe the experience?
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A: It was very heartening because we had large turnouts at almost every meeting that we had and great participation from those who did attend. And we got some really great ideas from the community about what they wanted to see. And so it just, overall, made me glad that I came, because you don’t always get that type of participation.
Q: Who did you meet with while you were here?
A: We started out with the media, and then began meeting with legislators. And so, we met with each of the legislators representing Columbus, and then we followed that with meeting with our own staff from the 16-county region. ... We try to do this separately so we can be sure to hear directly from staff. We also met with foster parents. Probably the most impactful meeting for me was with our youths who are living in foster homes and facilities in the area. And then (Thursday) we held a town hall, to which I invited anyone from the community that wanted to come in and listen to our plans for the work that we’re doing, and also to field questions and suggestions from them.
Q: So what did you learn about this community and its unique struggle with poverty and child welfare issues?
A: Well, what we did learn is that, unfortunately, there are larger concentrations of poverty in this region compared to most. The other really concerning thing for me is that we have larger concentrations of poverty in children under 18 than in most areas of the state. And so what that says to me is we need to really be providing more supportive services to those families to try to help bring them out of poverty so the kids could have a better future.
Q: You’ve said that you are the product of the child welfare system in North Carolina. What were the circumstances?
A: Well, my mother had me out of wedlock and had to give me up at birth. I was in an orphanage in eastern North Carolina for the first 10 months of my life. And then I was adopted by a couple that couldn’t have children in the mountains of North Carolina in a little town called Robbinsville. I just had an amazing childhood with parents and extended family that gave me everything they possibly could, as well as a community that really wrapped itself around me and gave me great experiences and everything from school to sports and extracurricular activities at all times. It was just a great upbringing.
Q: Did you ever have an opportunity to meet your mother?
A: I did not. Unfortunately, by the time I found her she had passed. So I wasn’t able to talk to her. I do have some half siblings. I have been trying to reach them for some time, and I have yet to be able to do that.
Q: What impact did that start in life have on you?
A: I think just having parents that invest a lot of time, it says a lot to a child. They also were very focused on me getting an education. Neither of them graduated from high school. And they understood the fact that education was the way out of poverty. They were both minimum wage workers in 1967 when I was adopted. And from the time I can remember, we talked on a regular basis about where I was going to college. There was never a question about going, but where. And then my mother continued the conversation with where are you going to get your master’s degree. That was, I think, a foundation that they gave me that allowed me to do the kind of work that I’m doing today. And had they not done that, I think my life would be much different.
Q: What did they do for a living?
A: My mother was a community outreach worker. She worked for a community action agency for 25 years doing the housing/urban development programs. She also did really basic support programs, like clothing and food for families in need, and for many years worked with the Head Start programs, recruiting and signing children up for Head Start. My dad, on the other hand, worked initially as a painter. He and my grandfather painted houses. And as I got a little older, my dad went back and completed a GED. And then he completed a course in heat and air and continued to get several other certifications in trades like that. He worked for the Department of Transportation in North Carolina, maintaining their facilities for the remainder of his career. At the same time, he was mayor of my hometown for about 26 years.
Q: And who was your role model growing up?
A: I had several, so it’s kind of hard to pick. But one that was kind of there continuously was the lady who was the social worker that found me for my parents. She was later the director for social services in my county. She was like a godmother to me and partly responsible for my selecting social work as a career; just a wonderful lady who was always an example of giving back to people and a great person to look up to.
Q: How does your personal background contribute now to the work that you’re doing?
A: I think, overall, that it just gives me a heart for the work. I really understand what kids in the system feel when they’ve been a part of the system, because you are in some ways different from other children. So I’ve always been concerned about the kids, hoping that I could do something to help them have a fulfilling life like I was afforded by my adoptive parents. And then, at the same time, I was at an early point in my life a recipient of the services. My dad became very ill with a serious illness. We ended up having to go on food stamps and Medicaid, which I didn’t understand really at the time. I was about 6 or 7 years old. But what I did understand about it was there was this terrible stigma around it. My parents really struggled with having to apply for programs. And when we received the benefits, we would leave every Sunday afternoon, or one Sunday afternoon a month, and go to the next town, which was about 30 to 45 minutes away, in order to do our grocery shopping so no one from our hometown would see us using food stamps. So I have a personal sense for the stigma behind the programs that we have, and I also have a great appreciation for how a family that’s in dire circumstances can depend on those programs for a short period of time and come out of that and go on to lead a full life, and not become dependent on the programs.
Q: In our society, today, there seems to be very little sympathy for the poor and many times they are blamed for their circumstances. We hear it in rhetoric from politicians, etc. What’s your reaction to that?
A: You know, I do periodically see people who don’t have a lot of sympathy for the poor. I think in some ways people who never experienced poverty in any personal way really can’t have an empathy for it. And I think in some ways I was fortunate — given the work that I do — to have been a part of a family that had to depend on (programs) for a period of time so that I could understand what it’s like to be on the receiving end of the services.
... The other thing that I try to do with people that I encounter who don’t have an understanding is to impart my personal story to them, because I think sometimes people will look at me and think, “Wow, he’s the director of a department. He’s successful.” And they never would look and say, “That was a kid that was on food stamps and Medicaid when he was 6 years old.” And so, I try to use my personal experience and personal story to kind of broaden people’s thinking about this, because I think in some ways poor people are maligned in unfair ways by our society. And people really need to have a better understanding of exactly what’s going on, because the majority of the people that are served by the programs are the aged, the disabled and children.
Q: Why do you think poverty is so persistent in our community?
A: ... I think there are many roads to poverty that go back decades, if not centuries. And I think some segments of our society have been institutionally disadvantaged and they’re still trying to come through that. I think the commonality between people that I’ve encountered who can’t come out of poverty is around the common denominator of hope.
... Many of the people that we work with have never had a true hope that they can end up being in a better circumstance than their parents, because their parents may have come from a very impoverished background. And so they really focus on the day-to-day needs for life, as opposed to making plans for bigger and better things. So I think part of what communities have to do is to try to give children a sense of hope that they can do things to help their circumstances as they get older. I’m pretty much convinced that education is an integral part of that.
Hometown: Robbinsville, N.C.
Current home: Atlanta
Job: Director of the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services
Previous Positions: Commissioner of Bright from the Start, Georgia’s Department of Early Care and Learning; DFCS director of Legislative and External Affairs; DFCS Family Services director; deputy director of Youth and Family Services for the Mecklenburg County Department of Social Services in Charlotte, N.C.; director of the Graham County Department of Social Services in Robbinsville, N.C.; judicial district manager for the North Carolina Department of Corrections.
Education: Bachelor of Arts in political science and sociology, and a Master of Social Work from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.