Gov. Rick Scott faces a difficult decision in naming a permanent secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families, given the demands of the job, the lateness in his term and the scrutiny of lawmakers moving to respond to a rash of child deaths.
Scott has some breathing room after announcing last week that Interim Secretary Esther Jacobo will stay on the job through the end of the 2014 legislative session. He tapped the Miami-based attorney to lead the agency in mid-July, for 90 days, after David Wilkins resigned under fire.
Jacobo quickly proved effective at calming the stricken agency, stayed on, and now, Scott says, she’ll be an "invaluable resource for legislators" during the upcoming session.
The governor also said his office will meet with children's services providers, law enforcement agencies and community leaders for their advice on appointing the next secretary.
"It’s not enough to care about kids," Jacobo said. "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."
Longtime DCF observers predict that Scott will look within the agency for a leader because an outside candidate is unlikely to move to Tallahassee for what could be the governor’s last few months in office if he is not re-elected in November.
"It’s going to be difficult to get someone with national credentials," said former DCF secretary George Sheldon, now a candidate for attorney general.
"There’s a huge challenge, and that’s getting a quality secretary who would not have even a year to serve," said trial attorney Howard Talenfeld, president of the watchdog group Florida’s Children First. "I would be hopeful that the department looks at some of the people who are there. There are some quality folks."
Sheldon and Talenfeld were among those who pointed to the possibility that Scott could appoint DCF Deputy Secretary Pete Digre or Assistant Secretary for Programs Stephen Pennypacker, saying both would be qualified for the post.
The internal candidates also would have the advantage of continuity, said Jane Soltis, a consultant with the Casey Family Programs, which works with DCF on a number of projects.
"When we have instability in the department, then we have a lot of changes in staff and we lose some of that historical memory and perspective about what we’ve done before, why it hasn’t worked and how do we build on the lessons learned in the past," Soltis said. "One of the concerns at this point is that there’s not a huge depth of historical memory in the department because of the turnover and the instability that we’ve seen."
Talenfeld added that the next secretary should continue the work Jacobo has begun with the Casey Family Programs, calling the recommendations of the Seattle-based foundation “right on target.”
As interim secretary, Jacobo brought Casey in for an independent review of Florida's child welfare practices, including a study of 40 deaths of children known to the department when they died of abuse or neglect. With the House and Senate working on bills to address the deaths, the Casey staff reported its findings to lawmakers, and Jacobo began implementing many of their recommendations.
Both Jacobo and gubernatorial candidate Nan Rich, a former lawmaker with a background in health and human services, say the next secretary should be committed to keeping Florida’s privatized community-based care system in place.
"We’ve worked too long and hard to decentralize DCF," said Rich, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate. "I want someone who understands that. It’s very important to continue on that road of local communities having control of their child welfare system."
In fact, said former lawmaker and children’s services lobbyist Sam Bell, his only hope for the child welfare system is at the local level.
"The problem is that the direction to all the secretaries is coming from the top, and it would be almost impossible for a person to do well and do right within that environment," Bell said. "The real answer is to make a change at the top. You must add to the problem a legislature that is more inclined to criticize and attack than to build and nurture. If any positive change is to occur in family services, it will come at the local level where people are trying to deal with the problems rather than play politics or adhere to extreme political positions."
"Sometimes it’s a good idea to forget the political advantages of an appointment and simply appoint the guy or girl who can do the job," said former House Speaker Ralph Haben, now general counsel to Big Bend Community Based Care.
And Sheldon said morale at the agency is among the secretary’s most important responsibilities.
"Leadership is about respect," he said. "It’s not about throwing the lowest person on the totem pole under the bus and calling it reform."
DCF faces a wild card in Senate President Don Gaetz, who said last week that his chamber would move to make it harder for Florida to repeat yet another cycle of child deaths and new secretaries. He said lawmakers should not depend on the "administrator du jour" at DCF, which has had seven secretaries, counting Jacobo, since 1999.
After the session, Jacobo will leave DCF to become chief of staff to Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez-Rundle, who has been holding the job for her.