The Georgia Division of Family and Children Services is in transition again.
This time the change is because of the departure of Bobby Cagle, the division’s most recent director, who has been hired by the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services.
In Georgia, the new interim DFCS director is Cagle’s former chief of staff Virginia “Ginger” Pryor, who has over 27 years of experience in child welfare and social policy, according to the division’s website. Prior to coming to Georgia, her most recent position was Senior Director for Strategic Consulting with Casey Family Programs in Seattle, Wash.
Foster care in Columbus
The changes come as Columbus continues to struggle with a large foster care population. In November, DFCS’s then Communications Director Susan Boatwright sent the Ledger-Enquirer updated numbers. Boatwright has since retired as communications director, along with other staff changes at DFCS in the wake of Cagle’s November departure. Boatwright said she didn’t know how long it would take for Cagle’s position to be filled.
In November, there were 414 foster children in Muscogee County, 110 foster homes and 265 foster beds. Thirty-nine percent of the children were placed outside of the county because no beds were available and 24 percent placed outside of the region. The agency placed 33 percent of the children with relatives.
The numbers are an improvement over two years ago when there were 524 foster children in the county and only 67 local homes available.
Six months ago, Cagle visited Columbus touting a “Blueprint for Change Initiative” to reform the state system. Gov. Nathan Deal had just signed a budget that included a 19-percent raise for child welfare workers and an increase in payments to families who care for foster children.
Cagle also met with foster parents, foster children and public school officials, as well as law enforcement representatives, judges and the Rotary of Columbus, sharing his personal story as a product of the North Carolina foster care system.
‘Make the largest impact possible’
Before leaving for Los Angeles last month, Cagle did one last interview with the Ledger-Enquirer and two other media outlets on a conference call, explaining his decision to leave.
“It does have something to do with my personal intention for my life and my career, which is I want to make the largest impact possible that I can on citizens for children and families,” he said in the interview. “And, as you probably know, Los Angeles County is a county of 10.2 million people — there are almost as many people in that county as there are in the state of Georgia — and it is widely recognized as the largest child welfare system in the United States.”
Cagle, who ran the state DFCS for three and half years, said he also felt the division had made great strides under his tenure, and it was a good time to leave.
“We’re a very different agency today than what we were three and a half years ago,” he said. “When I first came in, we were several thousand cases behind. ... And the morale of the agency was probably at the lowest that I’ve ever seen it, and we had the turnover to prove it.
“Thirty-nine percent of our staff was walking out of Child Welfare on a regular basis, and it’s pretty difficult to run an agency with that turnover,” he said. “All you get done is recruit, hire and train, and then prepare for those people to leave.”
Cagle said he and his staff reduced the backlog of cases, making children safer, and they educated the public and lawmakers about challenges the department faced. They also tried to become more transparent through media coverage.
“And I think the processes that we followed with the public, with the General Assembly, with the Governor’s Office, to try to make sure people understand the work that we do better, has paid big dividends for us,” he said. “...That made me feel as though it could be time for me to look for something else.”
Case of Dennetta Franks
Yet, with all the changes, some children still fall through the cracks. One local 17-year-old girl, Dennetta Franks, was a ward of the state when she was found shot to death in Atlanta on Sept. 21.
Before the incident, Franks had been living at a Holiday Inn Express in Columbus, under the 24/7 supervision of a guardian with Cedar Tree Children and Family Services, a local agency responsible for juveniles awaiting placement into a home by DFCS. Franks ran away from the hotel on Sept. 7 and never returned.
Cagle said he couldn’t comment on the case, specifically, but addressed the issue of runaway teens throughout the system.
“One of the phenomenons that every child welfare jurisdiction in the country deals with is a tendency of some children who are very traumatized and troubled —especially older kids —they have a tendency to run,” he said. “We take every step that we could possibly take to make sure those kids are safe, to make sure they have what they need and the care.
“But, unfortunately, a very small percentage ends up running from foster care and being on the run,” he said. “And what happens at that point is, often times because of the backgrounds that they have, they end up in very dangerous situations. And those, often times, end up in tragedy. So we engage in every effort that we can to be able to locate them while they’re on the run and also try to understand the mental health of kids so that we provide services that they need to prevent them from doing that.”
Building a foundation
Cagle said he developed a strong leadership team while serving as director, and they’re prepared to carry on the work.
“These people are highly competent; they all come with skill sets that are tailor-made for this,” he said. “Many of them have worked their entire careers in child welfare, and so I am confident in leaving that they’re going to be able to continue on with what I have been doing. These plans have not been mine. They have been ours.”
He said the department would be in good hands under Pryor’s leadership, crediting her with leading the development of the “Blueprint for Change” initiative.
“Her being chief of staff, and having previously been a deputy director for Child Welfare, I think gives her a unique perspective, along with her having worked with six different child welfare jurisdictions across the country prior to coming here,” he said. “I’m confident that things are going to continue along well and really become better because the focus is now: How do you engage the community in making children safer and getting families what they need to be able to support their children?”
Pryor, a native of Seattle, said she came to Georgia three and a half years ago to join Cagle in his reform effort. She started as a consultant before receiving a full-time position.
“I think my fondest memory of him will be that he handed me 18 pages of a single-space legal document of all the things that needed to be addressed in Georgia, and asked me to partner with him to make sense of it all and reform the system,” she said. “... To be able to finish what Bobby and I have created, it’s an honor for me to be able do that.”
Pryor said she will continue the course and move the blueprint to its next phase, called “Journey Toward a State of Hope.”
“And, ultimately, what that really means is more engagement with the community,” she said. “I think we have a lot of work to do around prevention.”