We were very concerned with the direction that DCF was taking on what we thought were some extremely important issues, Spudeas said. We were alarmed at the response not just by the secretary but by others in the department. It didnt seem as if DCF was taking the type of responsibility it should have been.
Spudeas said she hopes that DCF will reconsider some of its controversial policies and become more responsive again so that when theres a horrific incident we carefully scrutinize what everyone has done to make sure that it doesnt happen again.
Wilkins also had faced withering dissension from the leaders of 19 private agencies that provide foster care and adoption services throughout the state under contract with DCF. Until Wednesday, when he announced a reversal in his demands, Wilkins had been insisting that the community-based care agencies, or CBCs, grant him the authority to reject all high-level executive hires a demand the private groups balked at.
The chairwoman of the state Senates Children, Families & Elder Affairs Committee, Hollywood Democrat Eleanor Sobel, had called for a hearing into the recent child deaths, as well as the acrimony between Wilkins and his private foster-care providers. Sobel said Thursday she would wait to see whether the hearing is still warranted. I need to speak with the new secretary, Sobel said. I still think we need answers to the four recent child deaths.
Wilkins resignation comes at a sensitive time for the long-embattled agency: DCF is mid-way in a disputed effort to overhaul the states system for investigating child abuse, assessing the risk to troubled families and providing services to mitigate such risks. Wilkins called the project a child welfare transformation, but some of his policies drew harsh criticism from experts and advocates.
Wilkins was appointed to DCF, a mammoth agency with a close to $3 billion budget, in January 2011. He had been a consulting executive with the technology vendor Accenture, which has a large footprint in Florida government contracting, and also had served as the finance chief of the Florida Baptist Childrens home, a social service group with strong Christian fundamentalist roots.
As a businessman, Wilkins was considered an excellent fit for the Scott administration, which valued corporate experience over government work or public service, especially in the early days of the administration. Wilkins had served on Scotts transition team.
Wilkins put some of his critics at ease early on when both he and Scott announced the week Wilkins was appointed that they would not appeal or otherwise fight an appeals court ruling that cleared the way for gay men and lesbians to adopt children in the state.
But his honeymoon was short-lived: In February 2011, the body of a Kendall-area 10-year-old, Nubia Barahona, was found decomposing in a black garbage bag in the back of her adoptive fathers pest-control truck in Palm Beach County. Through its privately run foster care agency, Our Kids, DCF had approved Nubias adoption by Jorge and Carmen Barahona, and then overlooked phone calls to the states hotline that Nubia was being abused.
Nubias death appeared to haunt Wilkins, who carried a picture of the pretty blond-haired girl, and invoked her name often in emails and statements about the agencys transformation.
Wilkins had enormous faith that his child-protection overhaul would correct some of the agencys failures, but before the transformation could take root his staff was confronted with a cluster of child deaths: Four children with a DCF child-protection history died of either abuse or neglect over a six-week period. A fifth child was hospitalized with a life-threatening liver laceration a few months after hed been treated for a broken thigh bone. A Miami-Dade child welfare judge said she was very disturbed by the agencys performance in the case, adding Were lucky we dont have another death in our county.
Miami Herald staff writer Katia Savchuk and Bradenton Herald writer Charles Schelle contributed to this report.