MIAMI (CBSMiami) – Just hours after being named the Interim Secretary for the Department of Children and Families, Esther Jacobo has explained her vision for the often-criticized agency moving forward.
“We need to refocus on what’s important, which is really focusing on the safety and well-being of children,” Esther Jacobo said Thursday.
Jacobo replaces outgoing DCF secretary David Wilkins. The abrupt announcement was made Thursday.
According to a statement from the Governor’s office, Wilkins resigned to pursue opportunities in the private sector and focus on his foundation.
“I very much admire Secretary Wilkins’ leadership,” Jacobo said from the DCF building in Miami where she served as the Regional Managing Director for the Southern Region of the Florida Department of Children and Families. “He’s done so much for this department. His heart was truly in the right place and he had the skills to do it.”
But Wilkins’ two and a half year tenure was marred in scandal from the start.
Just a month after taking charge of the agency, DCF was rocked by the death of Nubia Barahona, allegedly at the hands of her adoptive parents.
Jacobo was an attorney for the agency in the fallout from that case.
In the first six months of this year, Dontrell Melvin, Antwan Hope and Ezra Raphael were found dead. Each of their troubled parents had a history with DCF.
Eleven-month-old Bryan Osceola was discovered dead inside a sweltering car.
His mother, Catalina Bruno, is charged with aggravated manslaughter.
Six months before his death, DCF did nothing when Bruno was found passed out drunk in a car with her son unrestrained in the front seat.
The agency heaped much of the blame of Bryan’s death of protective investigator Shani Smith.
She no longer works for the agency. A CBS 4 News investigation revealed Smith was not certified to be a P.I.
“I know there’s been a lot of press around child death,” Jacobo said. “We need to figure out what, if anything else, we can do in that regard.”
She said she wanted to stop the “noise” and “finger-pointing”.
As the chair of the Miami-Dade Community Based Care Alliance, Judge Jeri Beth Cohen works closely with DCF.
She was not surprised to hear about Wilkins’ resignation and hopes his successor cleans house.
“We know that there are system problems, not only statewide, but locally,” Judge Cohen told CBS 4’s Lauren Pastrana in a phone interview Thursday evening. “I’m hopeful that Esther will look at her team so these sorts of things don’t happen again.”
Jacobo previously served as an assistant state attorney and previously worked with Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle.
“It’s a difficult job. It’s a thankless job,” Fernandez-Rundle said. “I’m proud of the governor’s choice in Esther… We look forward to working with her.”
“David (Wilkins) did a great job in leading the state’s top child protection agency and his service is deeply appreciated,” Governor Scott said in a statement. “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.”
Jacobo plans to travel to Tallahassee in the coming days to get situated in her new post, but has no plans to move permanently from Miami.
“I’m probably as surprised as all of you,” Jacobo said of her new position. “I hope I can live up to the Governor’s expectations and that of the public.”