The increased attention and scrutiny of Florida's child welfare system prompted by the Miami Herald series "Innocents Lost" is welcome. The Department of Children and Families is continuously evaluating how we can do better. Every day we work in partnership with our community-based care agencies, the judiciary, guardian ad litem and many community stakeholders to do what is best for vulnerable children.
Every death and every injury causes us grief and self-reflection. The Herald recounted 477 deaths over a six-year period. These are cases that we have been studying and agonizing over for years. We must learn from every child death and make improvements so that mistakes are never repeated.
When Casey Family Programs last year presented its findings after studying dozens of child deaths in Florida, we immediately went to work implementing their recommendations. We began deploying a new and more comprehensive method of doing investigations; we gave our investigative teams a larger framework to guide them so they can better assess a family's needs and know when to intervene. And, we are employing innovative techniques — from pairing investigators to enhancing our reporting database to include alerts when parents are failing drug rehabilitation.
These efforts and the work we do on a daily basis are centered on one goal — to do what is best for each individual child. There can be no pendulum in child welfare swinging between removal and family preservation. To make decisions for individual children based on any policy is wrong.
State and federal laws dictate that we must make every reasonable effort to keep children in their homes if we can safely do so — this mirrors others across the country and is based on extensive research. The key word is "safely." We are training our investigators to look at the functionality of the whole family to ensure they are making the safest and best decision for each child.
We stand firmly in the belief that the system is not broken, it is challenged. Every year the department conducts an average of 200,000 child protective investigations concerning approximately 300,000 children — protecting children, mending families, helping children find new forever families and connecting parents with services they need to learn how to protect and nurture their children.
We can all be part of the solution to these challenges. We need more foster and adoptive parents and more guardians ad litem, and we hope this series will encourage more Floridians to get involved. In the meantime, our dedicated professionals will continue to do their best each day to make very difficult decisions on behalf of struggling families and children who are at-risk. We will continue to work with our dedicated legislative leaders and a committed governor to improve our laws and make sure we have the resources we need to help families and save children.
Esther Jacobo is the interim secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families.