Deal Announces DFCS Shakeup

Gov. Nathan Deal is shaking up the Division of Family Children Services, both in the leadership and structure of the state’s child welfare agency.

Deal Thursday announced Bobby Cagle, currently commissioner of the Department of Early Care and Learning, will serve as interim director of DFCS, effective Monday.

He replaces current Director Dr. Sharon Hill, who’s lead the division for less than one year. Deal said Hill is leaving DFCS to serve at the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget, though the details behind her ouster remain unclear.

Speaking at an unrelated event, the governor said the leadership change was needed to end what he described as “a culture of indoctrination” that promotes family reunification above all else, sometimes at the risk of a child.

“While that is a laudable goal, I believe the appropriate goal is the welfare of the child, and that welfare of the child should be primary and always the focal point of DFCS’ action,” he said.As heard on the radio

  The governor said Cagle’s appointment will come with a more “aggressive” emphasis on identifying early signs of abuse and working with those families.

“I do think having new personnel with a different point of view and a different direction and different marching orders … will make a difference,” he said. 

Along with Hill’s ouster, Deal is also restructuring a key element of the division’s hierarchy. Under the plan, the DFCS director will now report directly to the governor, rather than the Department of Human Services commissioner, as had been the case until now.

Deal said the move serves as a trial run for making DFCS a standalone agency in the future. 

“We want to see in the short term whether or not it works this way,” he said. “I believe that it will probably show us that it does work better, and if it that’s the case, I’d be in favor of separating it out.”

Deal said separating the two would require legislative action, though he said he had no plans to call a special session. 

The changes come after a number of high-profile deaths of children who had a history with DFCS prompted harsh criticism of the division and how it reviews cases.

The deaths of 10-year-old Emani Moss and 12-year-old Eric Forbes late last year provoked DFCS to undertake a number of changes under Hill’s watch, including the roll out of a centralized call system for abuse and neglect cases, a review of all cases that were closed over the phone and the firing of some case workers involved in the two cases.

The  deaths also pushed Deal, who faces re-election this year, to take action, prompting plans to spend $27 million dollars over the next three years to hire 500 new case workers and supervisors, along with the formation of his Child Welfare Reform Council.

Cagle made his first appearance as the new DFCS head at Thursday’s council meeting.

He said his first move will be to review the division’s intake and investigation process. Any current initiatives that aren’t directly related to child safety could be tabled, he said, though didn’t offer specifics.

“If there are initiatives out there that have been started that are not directly related to child safety, we have to evaluate whether those should move forward, and we have to begin doing that immediately,” Cagle said.

Dougless County Juvenile Court Judge Peggy Walker, who sits on the reform council, said having the DFCS commissioner report directly to the governor is a good move.

“We need someone who’s going to advocate for adequate resources and not have to have permission to ask for things,” she said. “So this removes a layer between the governor and the department.”

With Cagle’s appointment, he becomes the third DFCS director in less than 3 years.

Walker said high turnover in the director role has created instability in a fragile system aimed at helping vulnerable children.

“We really have to do some serious thought about what is appropriate for strategic planning for children,” she said.

Melissa Carter of Emory’s Barton Child Law and Policy Center agrees.

“That transition destabilizes the agency all the time, and it builds in sort of a learned helplessness among the work force, and therefore sort of fractures and compromises the actual outcomes we’re trying to seek,” she said.

Both women, however, applauded Deal’s choice of Cagle, saying he’s a good fit for the role.

Deal also tapped Katie Jo Ballard to serve as deputy interim director of DFCS.

Her appointment also becomes effective Monday.