The head of Florida's child welfare agency abruptly resigned Thursday amid ongoing intense scrutiny of the agency for alleged missteps in handling child deaths in recent months and growing dissension with its network of private contractors.
With David Wilkins stepping down as head of the Department of Children and Families, Miami's regional managing director Esther Jacobo will fill in as interim secretary.
"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," Gov. Rick Scott said in a statement, hinting at the agency's woes.
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Jacobo told NBC 6 she didn't know why Wilkins resigned.
"I will tell you that I greatly admired his leadership. He did great things for the department. They didn't tell me why he resigned, but I do feel that," she said.
Jacobo told The Associated Press, "I literally got a call today from the governor's office informing me that the secretary had resigned and they were asking me to be the interim secretary for 90 days."
Wilkins, who was finance chairman of the Florida Baptist Children's Home before joining DCF, was not immediately available for comment Thursday.
"I can honestly say we have improved our operational efficiency dramatically and helped more people in this state than we ever imagined possible," he said in an email to his staff.
Wilkins did not elaborate on why he was resigning in his letter to Scott.
His resignation comes less than two months after Wilkins announced he was firing a child protective investigator for forging documents about substance treatment for a mother months before her 11-month-old baby died in a sweltering car. Both the investigator, Shani Smith, and her supervisor Duray Smith later resigned.
Catalina Bruno is accused of leaving her son Bryan Osceola, along with a can of beer, in a car outside their Kendall home. The boy had a 109-degree temperature when found, authorities said. His mother is now jailed on an aggravated manslaughter charge. Bruno's attorney said she is fighting the charge.
The DCF investigator became involved with the family in November when 30-year-old Bruno was accused of driving recklessly, hitting walls before she passed out with the engine still running and the baby in her lap, according to documents released by DCF.
The investigator said she contacted a substance abuse expert to determine whether Bruno needed drug or alcohol treatment but the investigator said Bruno posted no threat to her children and didn't think substance abuse services were needed, according to authorities. Bryan and his siblings remained in her care and six months later, Bryan was dead. An email sent to Bruno's attorney was not immediately returned Thursday.
And in a case last month, police found 2-year-old Ezra Raphael unconscious in his Miami home. His mother's boyfriend, Claude Alexis, was charged with first-degree murder and child abuse after an autopsy ruled the boy's injuries to his back and body as a homicide. The toddler was home alone with Alexis at the time, according to a DCF report.
DCF officials said the child's mother, Cierrah Raphael, left the boy with a caregiver in Gainesville in 2012 because she couldn't take care of him. In February, DCF asked the unnamed caregiver to call the hotline if the mother ever tried to get her child back. But DCF said the caregiver never made that call and Ezra went back to his mother, who was charged with neglect after the boy's death. Raphael's attorney, Jorge Viera, would not comment on the case but confirmed that his client is fighting the charge.
Jacobo said Thursday she would make looking into the trouble cases a priority and implement changes that "do better on behalf of Florida's children."
"This stuff doesn't just happen by chance. When it happens once it's indicative ... when it happens three times it's really, really indicative of some severe supervision problems and the way they are assessing child safety," said Miami Judge Jeri Beth Cohen.
Cohen, who has worked with Jacobo for years, praised her insight into child welfare issues and her relationship with the courts and private contractors.
"A couple of these children's deaths that were handled incorrectly were right here in Dade County so she's going to have to take a look at her own shop," Cohen added.
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The private contractors who oversee foster care also had criticized Wilkins, accusing him of trying to exert too much control over them as he renegotiated their contracts. Some also accused Wilkins of trying to undermine the goals of the privatized system.
"When we were being left out of the conversation and having it dictated to us, we weren't going to stand for that and we didn't," said Kurt Kelly, the CEO of the coalition representing the contractors. He said most of the issues have now been smoothed over.
Jacobo also referred to the contractors' complaints as she took over.
"Whatever I need to do to bring down the insane noise level that is going on so that we can focus on what is really important which is serving the kids, I am going to do," she said.
One of Wilkins' priorities was overhauling the role of child protective investigators by hiring 100 new investigators, mostly in South Florida, reducing their caseloads and bolstering training. Jacobo said further improvements will be a priority.
“The finger pointing and the noise level has taken us off-mission and we need to focus back on protecting the children and making their lives better,” she told NBC 6.