• October 2020
  • Vol. 21, No. 7

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Upending the Status Quo

Written by Bobby D. Cagle, M.S.W., director, Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services

In January, as the first reports of a global health crisis made headlines, few of us could have imagined then the extent to which the coronavirus pandemic would disrupt our everyday lives and illuminate the inequities and dysfunctions of our systems.

The pandemic served as a magnifying glass on long-overlooked issues of poverty and racism and, ultimately, set the scene for a series of national protests where thousands gathered, unified by deep pain and outrage, to denounce the unjustified police killings of African American men and women.

During this time, the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) experienced its share of civil unrest. On a weekday morning in July, a single man stood outside of DCFS headquarters with a large banner that read, "DCFS Terrorizes Black Families." That same day, our offices in Lancaster and Palmdale, areas impacted by high-profile child deaths, also had small public demonstrations where protestors rebuked our organization for systemic deficiencies that disproportionately affect children and families of color.

This critique is not unique to Los Angeles County. Over the years, child welfare jurisdictions across the country have experienced this type of opposition from families, child welfare advocates, and other community stakeholders.

For those of us who have dedicated our lives to the well-being of communities, it is evident that we have reached a tipping point, and, frankly, I am all for it. As much as it pains me for DCFS to be the subject of criticism, I empathize with those who feel wronged, and, like them, I also desire meaningful change.

There could, therefore, not be a more opportune time for the Thriving Families, Safer Children initiative. I am simultaneously humbled and thrilled to be among the jurisdictions, including Denver, Nebraska, and South Carolina, selected to participate in this national effort intended to revolutionize child welfare systems.

For me, social work is a calling, an indelible part of my identity. I entered the system as an infant and was fortunate to be adopted by two loving parents. The child welfare system worked for me, and I've dedicated my life to supporting that system so that other children could have the same opportunities.

As the leader of one of the largest child welfare agencies in the United States, with nearly 8,800 employees and 36,000 children in our care, I am proud to say that our workforce is wholeheartedly invested. Our nearly 4,200 children's social workers across 20 regional offices engage daily in painstaking "heart work" because they, too, believe that through a full continuum of prevention services we can strengthen families and change lives.

The best path forward, according to the architects of Thriving Families—the U.S. Children's Bureau, Casey Family Programs, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and Prevent Child Abuse America—is to unite the public, private, and philanthropic sectors with families to redesign child welfare systems and create organizations that advance justice and equity.

I couldn't agree more. The timing of Thriving Families coincides with DCFS' roll out of Invest LA, an organizational framework that prioritizes superior service delivery, workforce excellence, and community and cross-sector partnerships. Its foundational pillars are prevention and after care services, brain science, a shared core practice model, and a culture of safety and equity.

Within DCFS, our executive team has exceeded my expectations in its commitment to Invest LA. Similarly, we have received invaluable support from community partners like the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, the Office of Child Protection, and the Department of Mental Health.

Like Thriving Families, Invest LA promotes the idea that child well-being is a shared responsibility. Among Invest LA's most important components is its human-centered design, a problem-solving framework that incorporates diverse perspectives, including those of children and families.

In the coming months, we will be hosting community forums for key stakeholders, including parents, relative caregivers, resource families, faith-based groups, and community-based service providers. The forums are meant to elicit feedback about how our department should move forward in today's changing child welfare landscape and how we can achieve our ultimate goal of establishing a child well-being system wherein protection is a component of a broader family wellness plan.

I'd like to note that this year has been the most challenging of my career. The coronavirus pandemic has posed unforeseeable difficulties that have pushed our workforce to its limits. Yet despite the serious risks posed by this deadly virus, DCFS has had record-low employee call-out rates, and our social workers have remained on the frontline throughout the pandemic making home visits to check on vulnerable youth and families.

That level of commitment cannot be faked. Through their extraordinary work ethic and purposeful actions, our social workers demonstrate daily that they have, at times, been unfairly mischaracterized by media as disengaged and jaded. Their commitment to the well-being of families as well as their enthusiasm for the opportunity to cocreate our child welfare system speaks to the true character and heart of most social workers.

As I look toward the future, I am energized and optimistic about this long-overdue paradigm shift. As children's social workers, most of us have spent our entire careers working to cultivate a child well-being community where families connect, heal, and become whole. While I never could have imagined that I would see it in my lifetime, the time is upon us and I am here to tell you that DCFS is fully committed to upending the status quo.


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