After 7 Child Deaths This Summer, DCF's Interim Chief Seeks Solutions

Aug 13, 2013

The acting chief of Florida's Department of Children and Families says she has a demoralized workforce, and she's part of the problem herself.

Esther Jacobo took over at DCF a month ago, just after the resignation of former Secretary David Wilkins. The department was in disarray after a series of seven deaths this summer of children who had come to the agency's attention.

Jacobo told the Miami Herald editorial board that Wilkins had raised morale by providing raises and professional respect for DCF investigators. But, she said, the morale boost did not survive subsequent events.

"You know, the deaths, one thing", Jacobo said. "The public derision, as you mentioned, and then, of course, at the end when Secretary Wilkins resigned and I came in, for the folks in Miami, I think they were fine because they know me, right? But the rest of the state has no idea who I am and they're like, oh, my goodness, what is going to happen to us now?"

Jacobo said getting the staff "re-energized" is one of her highest priorities during her time in Tallahassee.

Before her appointment as interim secretary, Jacobo was chief of the DCF region that includes Miami Dade and Monroe counties. She says she's not sure how long she'll keep her new job or whether she will return to South Florida when it’s all over.

The Miami woman who was appointed caretaker of the state Department of Children and Families a month ago is trying to sort through a series of issues, any of which could be blamed for the deaths of seven vulnerable children over the last four months.

"Anyone who simplistically tells you the answer is pull more, pull less or throw more money doesn't understand the complexities of this", Jacobo said. "It is so complex."

Since May, seven children who had come to DCF's notice have died at the hands of appointed caregivers. Early this month, a Miami judge ordered the agency to schedule court hearings for every potential caregiver and to provide significantly more information about each family's history with DCF.