Like so many before her, Esther Jacobo’s ascension to the top of Florida’s 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 DCF’s Miami region, was named interim secretary, another Miami youngster died from injuries inflicted earlier in the week by his mother’s boyfriend.
It is one of the oldest narratives in child welfare: Tiny bodies bearing tiny toe tags do not bode well for an agency head’s continued employment.
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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. “I’ve 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 department’s “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 there’s 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 DCF’s 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.”
Though Jacobo is expected to remain at DCF’s helm for only 90 days — sources say she told Gov. Rick Scott she did not want the job permanently — she appears to have big plans for that time.
She is scheduled to travel to each region of the state to speak with employees, clients and contractors. She has said she will consider tweaks to what was perhaps Wilkins’ defining initiative, a so-called “transformation” of the child-protection system that includes revisions to virtually every facet. Wilkins viewed it as his legacy. His critics called it misguided and potentially dangerous. Jacobo already has changed the tone of DCF’s conversation with the 19 privately run groups that administer foster care in the state. And she’s elevated DCF’s transparency to levels not seen since the administration of former Gov. Charlie Crist.
“She will build bridges, and shore up those relationships,” said Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, a former boss. “You are going to find her to be more of a peacemaker. It will be less about someone who comes along and breaks all the china.”
Jacobo never planned to run a social services agency. She was a lawyer all the way.
The daughter of Cuban migrants — her father was a businessman who left the island before Fidel Castro seized power; her mother was a schoolteacher who fled afterward — Jacobo moved from New Jersey to Miami when she was four.
She earned her law degree from St. Thomas University in 1992, and took a job as a prosecutor for then-State Attorney Janet Reno, for whom she was already working as a counselor for crime victims and witnesses. Like most newbie prosecutors, Jacobo started out in county court. But she moved steadily up the ladder, from juvenile court to the felony division to a specialty in domestic crime. In January 2001, Fernandez Rundle named Jacobo chief of the domestic violence unit. Jacobo beefed up prosecutions for both misdemeanor and felony domestic battery arrests; she tried the homicide cases herself.
The experience as a family violence prosecutor “really prepared me for some of the things I saw here” at DCF, Jacobo said. Not just working with partners and collaborators such as the police, she said, but learning more about what makes men and women strike out at the people closest to them: spouses and children.
Jacobo left the State Attorney’s office in April 2007 to join the Elser & Foster-Morales law firm, where she remained for only a year. The following February, one of Jacobo’s mentors in the state attorney’s office, Mary Cagle, called. Cagle had been tapped by former Attorney General Bob Butterworth to run DCF’s child welfare legal department when Crist appointed Butterworth DCF secretary. The legal department had been an embarrassment: The Florida Bar had, three years earlier, released an evaluation of the bureau, calling it “accidents and disasters waiting to happen.” The Bar suggested the legal department be disbanded altogether in favor of local prosecutors’ offices.
“I said, Esther, you have to meet me today,” Cagle recalls. The two women sat at a park halfway between their offices. “I said ‘This is our chance to get into an agency and do something to transform how stuff is done. We can raise the bar for lawyers, and do something to help kids. Esther, you can change the world.”
Jacobo jumped at the offer.
She started as deputy statewide director of Children’s Legal Services. But when Nubia Barahona’s death in February 2011 took DCF Miami administrator Jacqui Colyer’s job as collateral damage, Jacobo slid into the assignment, where she has remained.
DCF’s 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 I’ve 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 doesn’t hurt.
In Jacobo’s 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 agency’s 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, Jacobo’s 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 region’s 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 region’s child care licensing reviews; the region’s mental health and substance abuse program was ranked second in the state in overall performance.
Child advocates and regular DCF critics have generally viewed Jacobo’s time as boss in Miami as one of relative calm.
Though Wilkins largely disliked the leadership of Miami’s Our Kids foster-care agency, Jacobo had worked closely with the group’s 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 children’s 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.
Jacobo’s 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 governor’s 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 Jacobo’s 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.”
“I’m pretty honest with folks,” Jacobo said. “I tell them what I think. But I also treat with respect everyone’s opinions, and view them as valuable.”