Interim DCF Secretary Emphasizes Listening

By Margie Menzel, The News Service of Florida
Published: Friday, July 19, 2013 


TALLAHASSEE | Esther Jacobo, the new interim secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families, fielded calls all day Friday, the day after former secretary David Wilkins” sudden resignation.

There is no shortage of people with advice as Jacobo takes the reins of the beleaguered agency, but she said her first move is to listen.

“I”m in the process now of consulting experts,” she said. She”ll be in Tallahassee on Monday to meet with DCF executive staff “so I can understand what I need to tackle first.”

Jacobo also said she”ll travel the state to hear from the department”s regional directors and from the local community-based care agencies with whom Wilkins clashed.

But the interim secretary”s biggest challenge is to stabilize DCF after the deaths of four young children since mid-May, all of whom had contact with the department before they died.

“It all had to do with DCF that these children were not removed from their homes before they died,” said Democratic gubernatorial candidate Nan Rich, a longtime children”s advocate.

Before Wilkins stepped down, Sen. Eleanor Sobel, a Hollywood Democrat who is chairwoman of the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee, announced a September hearing on the children”s deaths and what she called the “turmoil” at DCF.

Sobel still plans to hold the hearing, and many children”s advocates think she should.

“That hearing should go forward, because it”s the lack of scrutiny in these cases that has caused a lot of alarm,” said Christina Spudeas, executive director of the advocacy group Florida”s Children First, which challenged Wilkins on child-safety policies.

acobo, who was the regional managing director for DCF”s southern region, said she wouldn”t presume to tell legislators what they should do. “Conversation is always good,” she said. “I”m a big believer in transparency.”

Wilkins had been battling on at least two fronts. He was trying to institute a new approach to child safety, which he called the “transformation.” And he”d clashed with the 19 community-based care organizations, which deliver local child-welfare services. In response, the agencies were recruiting lawmakers to rewrite the state law that created the community-based care system, which shifted many duties from the state to the local agencies, known as CBCs.

Some of Wilkins” policies had already been postponed before Jacobo was tapped.

One was Wilkins” plan to eliminate the so-called second-party review. A July 1 memo from DCF administrators eliminated the “extra set of eyes” that had been required in high-risk child protection cases. Critics called it especially troubling that DCF would eliminate second-party reviews so soon after the deaths of 5-month-old Bryan Osceola, 4-year-old Antwan Hope, 1-year-old Fernando Barahona and 2-year-old Ezra Raphael.

But the move to drop the review caught the eye of the Legislature”s Joint Administrative Procedures Committee, which on Monday said the change didn”t seem to comply with state law. On Wednesday, DCF general counsel Drew Parker said the elimination of the review had been postponed.

Rich said the finger-pointing over child welfare must stop.

“It”s not about fixing blame,” she said. “It”s that everybody has to take responsibility for what happened, figure out what went wrong and try to make sure it doesn”t happen again.”

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Alexia Nechayev

FYS Events & Meeting Chair
(Palm Beach)

Hello, My name is Alexia Nechayev. I am 25 years old and I am an alumna of Florida International University where I received my B.A. in Psychology. My future career goal is to be a Lawyer. I was in care for about one year from age 17 to 18. Prior to entering care, I only knew about the negative stigma regarding foster care and while in care that narrative was unfortunately my experience.

In school I felt like I was on display because my status in care was broadcast to other students and in my placement behavior was leveraged for “privileges” that should be a natural right of all children. Because I did not know my rights I did not know that what I was experiencing was wrong. Today this is exactly why I advocate, because I don’t want this to be the same for other youth who are experiencing foster care.

This is my second year on the FYS Statewide Board and I’m happy to be the Events and Meetings Chair this year because my main goal through advocacy is to reach as many people as possible. My favorite thing as a board member is to see how comfortable members become while working together. The community needs to know that youth in foster care are real people, going through some of the hardest moments of their life and youth need to know that their voice is powerful. I believe that we have to speak up and bring these issues to people’s attention so that they do not forget us. Advocacy, education and consistency is the only way.

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