After a series of highly-publicized child deaths this summer, the new leader of the Florida Department of Children and Families, Interim Secretary Esther Jacobo, rallied child welfare professionals Wednesday at their annual conference in Orlando.
Jacobo, who took the temporary post last month after the abrupt resignation of former secretary David Wilkins, opened the three-day event by recognizing the controversy surrounding the department and vowing to rise to the challenge.
"I know these are difficult things that you do every day, but please know and please believe that I am behind you 100 percent," she finished to cheers.
Jacobo's address came as Florida's child-welfare system tries to regroup after a devastating series of deaths of children whose families were already known to DCF. Estimates range from nine to 20 such deaths since April. As the total climbed, morale sank.
Jacobo has responded by asking for a review of those deaths and preaching transparency.
"I think there has to be an acknowledgement of the difficult place in which we find ourselves," she said in an interview with The News Service of Florida. "We have taken a lot of hits. We cannot circle the wagons and hide under the bed."
Her approach has earned praise from Gov. Rick Scott, who said Jacobo is "doing a great job at DCF and making sure our children are protected."
Professionals in the field agree that some deaths are inevitable in the child-welfare system. Over the years, Florida has seen those numbers wax and wane.
But Judge Cindy Lederman, presiding judge of the Miami-Dade County juvenile court, says it's time to break the cycle once and for all.
"We've got to plant some seeds that we're not going to see the flowers for a long time," Lederman said. "No more Band-aids, no more quick fixes, no more, 'Let's have another training.' No, no, no, no."
A record 2,500 case workers, child-protective investigators, judges, lawyers, parents, foster youth, guardian ad litem volunteers and providers of all kinds are among the conference attendees.
Also on hand: the Casey Family Programs, experts who are advising DCF on evidence-based best practices in assessing risk.
The gathering comes after a town-hall meeting last week about child deaths that was hosted by state Sen. Eleanor Sobel, a Hollywood Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee. That meeting in Pembroke Pines drew hundreds, including members of the Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade legislative delegations who promised to act when they return to Tallahassee next month.
Although children's advocates often remind each other that throwing money at the child-welfare system won't fix it, some see specific problems that additional funding could solve. For instance, state guardian ad litem director Alan Abramowitz hopes lawmakers will give child-welfare workers fewer families to work with.
"Their case loads should be as low as 12 children," he said. "I know that it's probably anywhere between 14 and 18, but you need to know the child really well if you're going to be making recommendations for that child's life."
Such discussions will be under way at the summit for the rest of the week.
"I hope we leave here this week with renewed understanding of the importance of every decision that we make and every action that we take," Jacobo said.