TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The new leader of Florida's Department of Children and Families said she is alarmed by the series of child deaths across Florida in recent months and she is taking steps to try to improve Florida's child welfare system.
There have been 12 verified child deaths due to abuse or neglect in Florida this year. Seven had prior contact with DCF, but the agency did not intervene.
Interim DCF Secretary Esther Jacobo, on the job two weeks now, has ordered a review of all the deaths
to see what the agency might have done differently in the cases.
Critics say DCF is conducting incompetent investigations, but Jacobo rejects that criticism.
"To say that we conduct incompetent investigations when we've had such an enormous success rate in the majority of our cases, I think is overreaching. That does not mean in any way that we should not be examining these to make sure we get better and that we don't let this happen again."
Child advocates also want DCF to start using two-person investigative teams for children under five, especially in South Florida.
That's an idea Jacobo strongly supports. She said she is already trying to shift caseloads so more investigators can work as two-person teams.
"I've asked in South Florida and other places in the state to actually look at doing that on difficult cases with certain criteria so that we have two sets of eyes and investigators that can help each other in the field and the supervisors should be going out in the field and they are doing that to some extent now, so that's also a positive."
A South Florida judge has urged DCF to turn over child-protective investigations to law enforcement. That idea is already being used in some areas of the state, including Hillsborough and Broward counties, so Jacobo said there is a precedent for it.
She said DCF has talked with law enforcement agencies across the state about handling child-welfare investigations. Some are more receptive than others based on their staffing, but Jacobo is continuing that conversation to determine if some law enforcement partners are able to help by conducting joint responses or by providing technical assistance.
Jacobo expects to have a preliminary review of child deaths in Florida by next week. She said she'll look for trends in the cases and she hopes to share that information with a national expert to identify ways to improve DCF's protocols.
Jacobo takes charge at DCF during one of its more tumultuous periods in recent years and, as she does, she's asking Floridians for their support.
"I want Floridians to understand that this is a very difficult and necessary job and it's not just ours at DCF. It belongs to all of us in Florida so I'd ask them for their help and that can be anywhere from making sure they're reporting abuse and also coming in as stakeholders to help us find solutions. I'd also like them to know that even though there are glaring, ugly cases of child deaths that we need to examine, there are many thousands of wonderful stories of success that they don't get to see, but the folks that we touch every day do, and are very grateful for it."