It’s the difference between night and day. Esther Jacobo, newly appointed interim secretary of the state Department of Children & Families, started the job facing the brutalization, and subsequent death, of a child in the agency’s system.
Ms. Jacobo alerted the media. She was out in front of this latest tragedy and up front with the public — no excuses. It was a stark contrast to the pat, cruise-control statements of her predecessor, David Wilkins, a businessman who, like Ms. Jacobo, assumed DCF’s top job in the wake of a child’s death. Mr. Wilkins, however well-intended, never seemed to understand the depth of the problems troubled families in his agency’s “care” confronted, nor that the solutions had less to do with accounting and checkmarks, than with accountability.
If he had, he never would have dismantled the safeguards and preventive measures in place that would have kept the agency a more effective protector of vulnerable children, nor needlessly made enemies of the community-based organizations providing services.
After Jayden Villegas’ death, Ms. Jacobo ordered a top deputy to “conduct a thorough review of all child fatalities due to abuse and neglect in 2013 where there was prior involvement by the department.” That’s the kind of forensics that such tragedies warrant.
That deputy has his work cut out for him. The child’s death that landed in Ms. Jacobo’s lap during her first days on the job was the fifth in less than three months in South Florida. Since then, the deaths of two more children known to DCF have come to light.
Is it any wonder that Ms. Jacobo told Gov. Scott that she does not want the job permanently? That’s understandable — and unfortunate. In less than a week, she has brought transparency, accountability and the spirit of cooperation that have been missing for three years.
In a letter published in the Sun-Sentinel, Andrea Moore, a child-welfare advocate, is on target: “Quality leadership and better direction must come from the top and be infused throughout the whole agency. Laws must be followed, and honesty must be the rule — no spin. Protecting and serving our most vulnerable must be overseen by competent, trained professionals on all levels, in both Tallahassee and on the front lines.”
Ms. Moore has an insider’s view: She served on the DCF Child Protection Transformation Advisory Group, and further admonishes that DCF must have a well-integrated computer system that actually works. Expensive, yes, but Mr. Scott should consider the human cost so far as a result of DCF being technologically hobbled. And he should understand that children must be removed when parents present a danger.
Ezra Raphael, Fernando Barahona, Antwan Hope, Bryan Osceola, Jayden Villegas, Dakota Stiles and Cherish Perrywinkle might be alive had caseworkers and/or those in authority not shrugged off the red flags of parents’ dysfunction.
New investigative policies, too, are crucial to DCF saving lives, as are getting troubled adults the vital services they need to eventually have functioning families.
It’s imperative that the governor not only take note of the difference in Ms. Jacobo’s style and policy stance, he should appoint a permanent DCF secretary from the same mold.
After all, the health and well-being — indeed, the very lives — of children in DCF’s care are, ultimately, in Mr. Scott’s hands, too.
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