The interim chief of Florida's troubled child welfare agency will be leaving the department to take a job with the Miami-Dade County State Attorney's Office — but not until the end of the legislative session, during which lawmakers will decide how they can repair a system in turmoil.
"The session is so important to put things in place for the future," said Esther Jacobo, a five-year veteran of the Department of Children & Families. "I'm grateful I can stay on."
Jacobo said Gov. Rick Scott asked her to stay through the session, and asked the Miami-Dade State Attorney's office if she could again put off her new job.
Jacobo said she had already been speaking with Katherine Fernández Rundle about a position as her chief of staff before Scott asked her to take over as interim director in mid July. She was scheduled to go to the State Attorney's Office in January but will now start after the session ends in the spring. "The governor called me personally and then Esther and I spoke about it," Fernández Rundle said. "We both felt that when the governor of the state asks for your service and it's in the best interest of the children, you have to help out."
Fernández Rundle said she is planning to involve Jacobo in projects like fighting human trafficking and coordinating court services for the mentally ill, veterans and drug users, areas that "cross over."
Scott initially turned to Jacobo, who was DCF's top Miami administrator, to take over the DCF interim secretary job after Secretary David Wilkins resigned amid the escalating scandal over a cluster of deaths of Florida children that DCF had failed to protect. The deaths were cited in a series of stories by the Miami Herald.
The governor announced Wednesday that his office "will meet with children's services and law enforcement stakeholders, and community leaders to identify a permanent secretary that will best protect Florida's youth."
Finding the right person won't be easy, said child advocate and attorney Andrea Moore. "When an agency is in chaos in the way that DCF has been for some time now, it's very hard to get reputable, talented people to come and lead it.
"Bob Butterworth once said it was the hardest job in Florida state government. He did it extraordinarily well, as did George Sheldon," said Moore, who recently served on the DCF Child Protection Transformation Advisory Group. "I think that someone who can gather respect from both sides of the aisle in the Legislature and in the communities across the state is hard to find."
When Jacobo took the helm, she brought in the Casey Family Programs, a Seattle-based foundation, to review the department's practices, looking at the deaths of a grouping of 40 children who were under the state's watch.
The report stated that Florida's newly developed safety model "does not attend sufficiently to the goal of preventing at-risk children from becoming endangered."
Jacobo said the report "was hard to read because I know there are people inside the department whose whole mission in life is to do good by kids," but she said it was "a very honest assessment of how we do things." At this point, she said, "we are headed in the right direction."
The Legislature has been holding hearings to determine if that's the case. Before a Senate panel on Tuesday, Stephen Pennypacker, DCF's new assistant secretary for programs, discussed the department's training initiates, its quality assurance protocols and its use of safety plans — signed pledges by parents to quit placing their children in jeopardy.
Jacobo said that she intends to work with the Legislature on improving practices and resources, which likely will involve seeking more money.
Sen. Eleanor Sobel, chairman of the Senate Children, Families & Elder Affairs Committee, said she had hoped Jacobo would become the permanent DCF head. "She has a wealth of experience," said the Hollywood Democrat. "We need the stability, so at least she's staying until after the session."
Kurt Kelly, the CEO and president of the Florida Coalition for Children, said: "We've worked hard to build good relationships with DCF no matter who's there. I thank her for taking on this interim role." Christina Spudeas, executive director of Florida Children First, said it was "imperative" that Jacobo stay through the session. "The department needs consistency and someone who can drive the ship."
In a news release, Scott said "Esther has been an incredible leader, and she will be an invaluable resource for legislators on children's and family issues during the upcoming legislative session."