Like so many before her, Esther Jacobos ascension to the top of Floridas long-troubled child welfare agency was forged in a crucible of death.
The administration of her former boss, David Wilkins, the recently departed chief of the Department of Children & Families, was bookended by the deaths of children: He faced the horrific death of a 10-year-old Miami girl, Nubia Barahona, his second month on the job. His tenure ended abruptly last week amid a simmering scandal over the deaths of four other Florida children that DCF had failed to protect.
Three days after Jacobo, who heads DCFs Miami region, was named interim secretary, another Miami youngster died from injuries inflicted earlier in the week by his mothers boyfriend.
It is one of the oldest narratives in child welfare: Tiny bodies bearing tiny toe tags do not bode well for an agency heads continued employment.
Jacobo mother, former social worker and prosecutor is hoping to break free of that storyline.
What I really want to do is refocus everybody toward the safety and well being of kids, Jacobo, 48, told a reporter a few days after accepting the top job. Ive always prided myself on keeping my eyes on the ball.
On Friday, as the statewide clamor over the deaths mounted, Jacobo instructed one of her top deputies, Pete Digre, a veteran child welfare administrator, to conduct a thorough review of all child fatalities due to abuse and neglect in 2013 where there was prior involvement by the department.
Jacobo called the initiative the departments Number One Priority, and asked Digre to deploy whatever resources are necessary to accomplish this as expeditiously as possible.
I am deeply disturbed by the recent child deaths that have occurred around the state due to abuse or neglect, Jacobo wrote in a memo. These tragic events demand a detailed examination and analysis so we can fully understand what happened and identify actions we can take to prevent future tragedies from taking place.
In speaking so openly about the tragedies, Jacobo has broken with the record of her former boss.
With a week behind her as interim secretary, Jacobo wrote emails and gave speeches generously praising her predecessor, who many in the state viewed as stubborn and aloof.
No one was more saddened and surprised by the resignation of Secretary David Wilkins than I was, she wrote in an email to her staff last week. I fully supported him as secretary and respected his leadership, and I continue to be proud of what we accomplished during his time at DCF.
Behind the scenes, however, Jacobo is making clear that theres a new sheriff in town.
When 2-year-old Jayden Villegas-Morales died last week from injuries police say he received when his father threw him into a wall, Jacobo released nearly 100 pages of records documenting DCFs history with the boy. And when a Miami child welfare judge suggested the state consider stripping DCF of authority over child-abuse investigations, and shifting the responsibility to local police, Jacobo sent her an email with the subject line: Can we talk?
I am very interested in your thoughts about outsourcing investigations, Jacobo wrote Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Cindy Lederman. I very much respect your expertise in this area. I really would appreciate your thoughts as soon as possible. I have a lot to do in a very short time.