DCF Interim Secretary Pledges Transparency, Listening Tour
Around the State
Esther Jacobo, the new interim secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families, fielded calls all day Friday, the day after former secretary David Wilkins' sudden resignation.
There was no shortage of people with advice as Jacobo takes the reins of the beleaguered agency, but she said her first move is to listen.
"I'm in the process now of consulting experts," she said. She'll be in Tallahassee on Monday to meet with DCF executive staff "so I can understand what I need to tackle first."
But the interim secretary's biggest challenge is to stabilize DCF after the deaths of four young children since mid-May, all of whom had contact with the department before they died.
"It all had to do with DCF that these children were not removed from their homes before they died," said Democratic gubernatorial candidate Nan Rich, a longtime children's advocate.
Before Wilkins stepped down, Sen. Eleanor Sobel, a Hollywood Democrat who is chairwoman of the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee, announced a September hearing on the children's deaths and what she called the "turmoil" at DCF.
Sobel still plans to hold the hearing, and many children's advocates think she should.
"That hearing should go forward, because it's the lack of scrutiny in these cases that has caused a lot of alarm," said Christina Spudeas, executive director of the advocacy group Florida's Children First, which challenged Wilkins on child-safety policies.
Jacobo, who was the regional managing director for DCF's Southern region, said she wouldn't presume to tell legislators what they should do. "Conversation is always good," she said. "I'm a big believer in transparency."
"Where there's transparency, there's trust," agreed Rich.
Wilkins had been battling on at least two fronts. He was trying to institute a new approach to child safety, which he called the "transformation." And he'd clashed with the 19 community-based care organizations, which deliver local child-welfare services. In response, the agencies were recruiting lawmakers to rewrite the state law that created the community-based care system, which shifted many duties from the state to the local agencies, known as CBCs.
Some of Wilkins' policies had already been postponed before Jacobo was tapped.
One was Wilkins' plan to eliminate the so-called second-party review. A July 1 memo from DCF administrators eliminated the "extra set of eyes" that had been required in high-risk child protection cases. Critics called it especially troubling that DCF would eliminate second-party reviews so soon after the deaths of 5-month-old Bryan Osceola, 4-year-old Antwan Hope, 1-year-old Fernando Barahona and 2-year-old Ezra Raphael.
But the move to drop the review caught the eye of the Legislature's Joint Administrative Procedures Committee, which on Monday said the change didn't seem to comply with state law. And on Wednesday, DCF general counsel Drew Parker said the elimination of the review had been postponed.
Rich said the finger-pointing over child welfare must stop.
"It's not about fixing blame," she said. "It's that everybody has to take responsibility for what happened, figure out what went wrong and try to make sure it doesn't happen again."
Jacobo's appointment has been praised by advocates, DCF staff and community-based care organizations.
"This work is hard enough without us fighting each other," she said.