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Thursday, June 12, 2014 - 12:35pm

Georgia's Division Of Family Services Gets New Leader

The agency overseeing child protection will now be headed by the state official credited it with making Georgia’s Pre-K program nationally-known.

Gov. Nathan Deal announced Thursday Bobby Cagle will take over State Division of Family and Children Services, or DFCS. Cagle is currently head of the Department of Early Care and Learning, which includes the Pre-K program.

The change at DFCS is part of reforms in response to the deaths of two children under the agency’s care.

Brian Robinson, Deal’s spokesman, says there’s still much work to be done at the agency.

“It’s got to be a safety net without holes in it and that’s what we’re trying to get to,” he said. “There are always going to be difficult situations in an agency such as this.”

He said Deal has much confidence in Cagle, who worked previously at DFCS. And he said the agency is one of a handful of key state departments Deal has tapped for additional funds.

“He hurts when a child who has had some contact with state agencies ends up being killed by parent or a grandparent or a mother’s boyfriend,” Robinson said. “Those are deeply troubling and painful times for him and he wants to be sure we have as few of those times as humanly possible.”

State Sen. Jason Carter who’s running against Deal for Governor announced said it was late in the day to be making these changes.
“It bothers me that it took Gov. Deal this long to act after so many kids and families have already fallen through the cracks,” he said in a statement. “The politics here are irrelevant—our priority has to be protecting kids. It remains to be seen whether this administrative reshuffling of the deck will get us any closer to that goal.”

DFCS is hiring 175 case workers to help relieve backlogs. DFCS officials say some caseworkers in the Atlanta area, for example, have as many as 100 cases.

Deal named Cagle the interim director of the DFCS. He replaces Sharon Hill, who is leaving to serve at the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget. Amy Jacobs, senior policy adviser for the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget, will replace Cagle as interim commissioner of the Department of Early Care and Learning.

“It is clear there is a need for a more deliberate reform process of the child welfare system, and we are taking action on several fronts,” Deal said in a written statement. “We must work to ensure that our children are safe and that they get their best shot at a good life. Commissioner Cagle has been a longtime champion of child care and early education, playing a vital role in administering our nationally recognized Pre-K program alongside a number of other responsibilities. I have no doubt that Commissioner Cagle will serve our state well in his new role.”

The changes come as the state continues to reel from the deaths of 10-year-old Emani Moss and 12-year-old Eric Forbes, who had been under DFCS care.

Child advocates and observers of the agency say a change at the top is just the beginning of needed reforms.

Melissa Johnson with the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank, says there still isn’t enough money to recruit foster families, among other issues.

“Even after the Governor added this past year, the child welfare budget is still down about 15 percent since 2009,” said Johnson with the GBPI, which is a nonprofit think tank.

The new caseworkers will help, but Johnson says nothing in the short-term will fix the problems severe budget cuts have wrought.

Officials with the Child Welfare League of America recommend caseloads of 12 to 17 families per worker in child protection cases.

The state hopes to have the new caseworkers in place by July first.

A council created by Governor Nathan Deal is studying the child welfare system. The panel hopes to have recommendations for the 2015 General Assembly.