Jacobo jumped at the offer.
She started as deputy statewide director of Childrens Legal Services. But when Nubia Barahonas death in February 2011 took DCF Miami administrator Jacqui Colyers job as collateral damage, Jacobo slid into the assignment, where she has remained.
DCFs Miami post has always been the most hellish position in a hellish agency which like DCF as a whole seems to cast off administrators with alarming regularity, usually on the heels of a catastrophic and well publicized child death.
It was one of the toughest, and yet most fulfilling, positions Ive ever held, said Samara Kramer, who had worked on and off for DCF for a decade before being asked to run the Miami district in 2003, in the wake of the scandalous disappearance of foster child Rilya Wilson.
Before being appointed to run the district on an interim basis, Kramer had been a deputy secretary and inspector general.
To be an effective district administrator in Miami, Kramer added, it helps to have a big heart, and very tough skin.
A good record doesnt hurt.
In Jacobos two years as Miami chief, she spearheaded an effort statewide to treat teenaged prostitutes less as criminals and more as victims of sexual assault, an initiative that led to a new state law that largely decriminalizes the actions of human-trafficking victims. She headed up another initiative to improve programs for parents engaged in domestic violence, in order to better protect their children. Long-time child welfare critics say she emphasized smoothing over relationships with a variety of other agencies and stakeholders, lowering the decibel of the agencys loudest controversies. She is credited with improving the abilities of the agency lawyers who go to court, day in and day out, on behalf of abused and neglected children.
Statistically, Jacobos region has performed better than most: She reduced turnover in her region from 50 percent in budget year 2011 to 14.8 percent this year. Likewise, investigative caseloads dropped on average from 25 per-investigator to 12. The regions food stamp, Medicaid and temporary aid programs are being processed quickly 99 percent of the time; the adult protective services program leads the state with timely investigations as does the regions child care licensing reviews; the regions mental health and substance abuse program was ranked second in the state in overall performance.
Child advocates and regular DCF critics have generally viewed Jacobos time as boss in Miami as one of relative calm.
Though Wilkins largely disliked the leadership of Miamis Our Kids foster-care agency, Jacobo had worked closely with the groups director, Fran Allegra.
She came in at a tough time, Allegra said. She made it her priority to keep the lines of communication open, and to have good relationships with me, with Our Kids and with our board. While we don t always agree, we have a very positive relationship and that helps a lot.
But the cluster of childrens deaths that consumed the agency beginning in May took a particularly heavy toll in Miami. Three of the five deaths and one case in which another child nearly died of a severed liver occurred in the Miami region. Indeed, some advocates have questioned the choice of Jacobo as interim secretary, claiming she is as responsible for the missteps as her former boss.
Jacobos ascension to the top job at DCF was so unexpected that she has yet to update her resume.
Literally, she said, I got a call from the governors office saying the secretary had resigned. Would I step in as the interim for 90 days?
DCF watchers suggest it would be unwise to expect a significant break from the Wilkins administration, given Jacobos shortened tenure, and the overall challenge of steering an aircraft carrier in troubled waters.
Few doubt that Jacobo will leave some kind of imprint.
Friends and colleagues suggest the biggest change in a Jacobo administration will be one of tone. While Wilkins was struggling to stanch the flow of child deaths, he also had opened a second front when he insisted on gaining significant new powers over the 19 private foster-care agencies under contract with DCF which the local groups fought bitterly. In the end, losing the support of the so called community-based care lead agencies and their influential boards of directors may have cost Wilkins as dearly as the well-publicized deaths.
Jacobo, instead, extended an olive branch to the groups almost immediately. She said one of her first moves would be to tone down the rhetoric.
Im pretty honest with folks, Jacobo said. I tell them what I think. But I also treat with respect everyones opinions, and view them as valuable.