TALLAHASSEE — David Wilkins, Florida's top child welfare and social services administrator resigned Thursday amid an escalating scandal over the recent deaths of four small children who had a history of involvement with child-abuse investigators.
Wilkins is leaving the agency to "pursue opportunities in the private sector and to provide more attention" to a foundation he leads, Gov. Rick Scott said in a statement.
Wilkins, who became the governor's longest-serving agency head, served as secretary of the Department of Children & Families since Scott's inauguration in 2011. But in recent months, Wilkins became mired in a simmering controversy over the deaths of four youngsters in a six-week period, all but one from Miami-Dade and Broward counties. A fifth child, also from Miami, nearly died from a lacerated liver after the agency failed to act when the infant suffered a broken thigh bone months earlier.
In his statement, Scott said the agency's top Miami administrator, Esther Jacobo, would serve as interim secretary.
"David did a great job in leading the state's top child protection agency and his service is deeply appreciated," Scott said. "I have no doubt that Esther will increase accountability in the department and enhance child protective services in order to protect the most vulnerable among us."
At an event at a Bradenton farm late Thursday, Scott said his administration would "work hard to make sure that we'll have the right people there to take care of anybody that has a need in our state." He praised Wilkins as a man who "cares about kids," adding: "He'll be a big loss."
In his short resignation letter — printed on plain paper with no state letterhead — Wilkins said he "appreciated the opportunity to serve the children and families of this great state."
Thursday afternoon, Wilkins sent a short email to the agency's 11,600 employees, thanking them for their service and declaring he was "proud to be (their) leader."
"We embarked on numerous change programs, and I can honestly say we have improved our operational efficiency dramatically and helped more people in this state then we ever imagined possible," Wilkins wrote. Referring to his wife, he added: "The greatest joy for Tanya and I was to witness the true passion that so many of you demonstrate every day in helping others. It was awe inspiring! We both want to thank you from the bottom of our hearts for the hard work, the support and for believing in us and what we tried to accomplish.
"Together," he added, "we made a difference. Continue to be proud of the great sacrifices you make every day so that others too can live the American dream. Our primary wish is that God will continue to bless you, your family and all of those you continue to help."
Jacobo began her career at DCF as a lawyer and, as statewide deputy director of the department's Children's Legal Services, she was responsible for litigation and other legal work statewide before taking over as top administrator in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties. She is also a former prosecutor, having risen to division chief of domestic crimes at the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office.
She inherits an agency in great turmoil.
In recent weeks, one of the state's established advocacy groups, Florida's Children First, called on Scott to make changes at the top of DCF. On Thursday, the group's director, Christina Spudeas, said she was "looking forward to the new administration."
"We were very concerned with the direction that DCF was taking on what we thought were some extremely important issues," Spudeas said. "We were alarmed at the response not just by the secretary but by others in the department. It didn't seem as if DCF was taking the type of responsibility it should have been."
Spudeas said she hopes that DCF will reconsider some of its controversial policies and become more responsive again so that "when there's a horrific incident we carefully scrutinize what everyone has done to make sure that it doesn't happen again."
Wilkins also had faced withering dissension from the leaders of 19 private agencies that provide foster care and adoption services throughout the state under contract with DCF. Until Wednesday, when he announced a reversal in his demands, Wilkins had been insisting that the community-based care agencies, or CBCs, grant him the authority to reject all high-level executive hires — a demand the private groups balked at.
The chairwoman of the state Senate's Children, Families & Elder Affairs Committee, Hollywood Democrat Eleanor Sobel, had called for a hearing into the recent child deaths, as well as the acrimony between Wilkins and his private foster-care providers. Sobel said Thursday she would wait to see whether the hearing is still warranted. "I need to speak with the new secretary," Sobel said. "I still think we need answers to the four recent child deaths."
Wilkins' resignation comes at a sensitive time for the long-embattled agency: DCF is midway in a disputed effort to overhaul the state's system for investigating child abuse, assessing the risk to troubled families and providing services to mitigate such risks. Wilkins called the project a child welfare "transformation," but some of his policies drew harsh criticism from experts and advocates.
Wilkins was appointed to DCF, a mammoth agency with a close to $3 billion budget, in January 2011. He had been a consulting executive with the technology vendor Accenture, which has a large footprint in Florida government contracting, and also had served as the finance chief of the Florida Baptist Children's home, a social service group with strong Christian fundamentalist roots.
As a businessman, Wilkins was considered an excellent fit for the Scott administration, which valued corporate experience over government work or public service, especially in the early days of the administration. Wilkins had served on Scott's transition team.
Wilkins put some of his critics at ease early on when both he and Scott announced the week Wilkins was appointed that they would not appeal — or otherwise fight — an appeals court ruling that cleared the way for gay men and lesbians to adopt children in the state.
But his honeymoon was short-lived: In February 2011, the body of a Kendall-area 10-year-old, Nubia Barahona, was found decomposing in a black garbage bag in the back of her adoptive father's pest-control truck in Palm Beach County. Through its privately run foster care agency, Our Kids, DCF had approved Nubia's adoption by Jorge and Carmen Barahona, and then overlooked phone calls to the state's hotline that Nubia was being abused.
Nubia's death appeared to haunt Wilkins, who carried a picture of the pretty blond-haired girl, and invoked her name often in emails and statements about the agency's transformation.
Wilkins had enormous faith that his child-protection overhaul would correct some of the agency's failures, but before the transformation could take root, his staff was confronted with a cluster of child deaths reported in the Miami Herald: Four children with a DCF child-protection history died of either abuse or neglect over a six-week period. A fifth child was hospitalized with a life-threatening liver laceration a few months after he'd been treated for a broken thigh bone. A Miami-Dade child welfare judge said she was "very disturbed" by the agency's performance in the case, adding "We're lucky we don't have another death in our county."
Miami Herald correspondent Katia Savchuk and Bradenton Herald writer Charles Schelle contributed to this report.