Florida’s new interim child welfare leader asked staff to refocus their attention in the wake of a handful of recent deaths of children involved with the agency as she addressed staff in Tallahassee on Tuesday.
“It should inspire all of us in child welfare to question just how such a terrible thin should happen. It’s a dramatic reminder of the importance of our work and the enormous responsibility,” said Department of Children and Families Interim Secretary Esther Jacobo.
The former state prosecutor was tapped after Secretary David Wilkins abruptly resigned last week. She came to the agency in 2008 and was most recently the managing director for DCF’s southern region.
Jacobo’s first priority has been to review every detail in a handful of cases that ended with the deaths of children involved with the agency.
“You must read every case as if it could be the next tragedy,” Jacobo said.
She said processes were in place, but were not being followed. In one of the deaths, DCF fired a child protective investigator for forging documents about substance treatment for a mother months before she left her 11-month old baby in a sweltering car.
A similar problem thrust the agency into the national spotlight nearly a decade ago after a caseworker lied about visiting foster child Rilya Wilson for more than a year, while filing false reports and telling judges the girl was fine. Rilya is presumed dead.
Wilkins was in the process of overhauling the role of child protective investigators when he resigned last week, but some critics, including the agency’s private contractors, said the transformation was ill conceived.
Jacobo praised Wilkins’ as a mentor, but said, “I will likely take a different approach in my leadership, but that doesn’t mean I don’t fully respect or endorse him and the things he did in the department.”
Typically in the wake of egregious child deaths, agencies either rush to remove more children from their homes and place them in foster care or swing to the other end of pendulum and leave too many in the home. But Jacobo stressed it can’t be about numbers.
“These are complex families and situations, and they require sophisticated and deliberate analysis,” Jacobo said. “So to base anything on this percentage of children being removed … is irresponsible.”