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Increased Scrutiny Makes Gov. Scott’s DCF Appointment Critical for Future

By Howard Talenfeld

The post of Secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families is one of the toughest jobs in Florida – and especially in Tallahassee. With the deaths of more than 20 foster children and at-risk kids under DCF watch, the result has been heightened scrutiny upon the agency. It also resulted in the resignation of embattled chief David Wilkins who was replaced by interim Secretary Esther Jacobo, who has taken some important first steps to fix the system by bringing in qualified child welfare experts to assess Florida’s failing system.

So, whomever Gov. Rick Scott names to replace Mr. Wilkins permanently must be ready for the challenge.

But more than battle-tested for the rigors and scrutiny of Tallahassee, the appointee has to be a child welfare professional who will prioritize protecting children over all others.

Never has the post of Florida Department of Children and Families Secretary been of a higher profile and importance than it is today. Cases of death, caretaker abuse, child-on-child sexual abuse, and children languishing in the system without permanent placement have now surfaced to the public spotlight while privatization of Florida child protection system system is still an experiment.

The published data concerning the privatized state system created by the Florida Legislature in the late 1990s is abysmal. It took the brilliant work and connections of one Miami Herald reporter, Carol Marbin Miller, to identify this glaring rash of deaths as the child protection system failed children.

Three years ago, DCF quietly abandoned their quality assurance system, which at that time was demonstrating that the Florida lead agencies and their contracted providers were not assessing the needs of children in the care and even when they did, were not addressing them.

Beyond Ms. Miller’s revelations, we also know that caretaker abuse and child-on-child sexual abuse in foster care are prevalent, systemic problems. Also, the private agencies are over-relying on placements of children in group homes and institutional placements – instead of the homes of real families.

Indeed, there has been no real oversight by DCF of this experimental child protection system.

So truer words were never written than when journalists wrote that Gov. Scott faces a difficult decision in naming a permanent DCF secretary. As Ms. Jacobo said recently, “It’s not enough to care about kids. Everybody cares about kids…It has to be someone who understands (that) the components around social services and child welfare are complicated and hard to navigate — and (who) takes advice from people.”

The new DCF Secretary needs to start where Interim Secretary Jacobo left off and be a proven child welfare leader who is willing to continue the course she set – and frankly tell Governor Scott exactly what needs to be done to turn Florida’s privatization experiment into a proven hypothesis.

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