Senators Ponder Creating Child Welfare Czar

DCF Interim Secretary Esther Jacobo supports creating the new position.
Credit Florida Channel / Florida Channel



By Stan Jastrzebski

Florida’s Department of Children and Families is a step closer to adding an official who’d be tasked with reducing the number of children who die after coming into contact with the agency. Two bills and a stack of amendments aimed at doing that were folded together Wednesday, but critics say they’re not sure how much it would cost or if the requirements for the new job are fully formed.

The new job title would be Assistant Secretary for Child Welfare – a job that sounded even more necessary after the Miami Herald showed nearly 500 kids who’d had contact with DCF have died.

“I spoke at Senator Sobel’s hearing a few months ago and asked ‘Where is the outrage at 24 deaths,’ asked Patrick McCabe, a Miami foster parent who’s given temporary shelter to some 70 kids in the last few years. “Now, after the investigative series by the Herald which, I’m grateful is allowed to even happen in the state because of the sunshine law, so I commend you for that. But now, after 477 deaths, where is the moral outrage at this problem?”

Sen. Eleanor Sobel (D-Hollywood) authored the legislation, which she says could help rehabilitate the state’s child welfare system – and the image of lawmakers who didn’t give it enough oversight in the past.

“Many of you know that I was a special ed teacher and a social studies teacher and an English teacher,” Sobel says. “If I had to give the past performance a grade, I would give it a D for our performance. But I think we are heading in the right direction and we’re close to getting to an A, so I’d say we get an A-, because we really haven’t talked about funding.”

Sobel’s bill would also create an organization known as the Florida Institute for Child Welfare, but the legislation doesn’t specify how much that might cost. Public testimony from parties to the child welfare system estimated the number could be as large as $25 million.

Lawmakers are already pushing to allow DCF to spend more money hiring additional child protective investigators, or CPIs. The new hires would be required to hold degrees in social work.

“No measures put into law will make a difference unless we have enough protective investigators take time investigating the families and analyzing the situations in order to make the appropriate decisions,” says DCF Interim Secretary Esther Jacobo.

But Sen. Audrey Gibson (D-Jacksonville) noted an apparent disconnect between what the state is looking for in a CPI and the background of the assistant secretary Sobel’s bill would create.

“There doesn’t seem to be in the bill that there’s a requirement for a degree,” Gibson says. “Yet the CPIs and the supervisors have to have a degree. The assistant secretary only needs seven years of experience. I’m just wondering how we kind of get to just experience, no degree.”

Other states, including Oregon, have also beefed up their incident response frameworks in the last decade.

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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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