Monthly Archives: August 2013

2013 Child Protection Summit – Interim Secretary Esther Jacobo

(Speech by Interim Secretary Esther Jacobo at the 2013 Child Protection Summit)

Welcome to the child protection summit!

I am humbled to stand here before you today as Interim Secretary of the Department of Children and Families. They tell me this is the largest attendance we have ever had at the summit, with more than 2,500 in attendance.

Although this is a very important moment for me, I do feel comfortable and confident. That is because I have come to think of my colleagues in the department and our community partners as part of my family. Like all families, we have our challenges. And as we know too well, some families have more challenges than others. In the end, like a family, our commitment to each other and the people we serve will get us through the difficult times.

I know you are here for the same reason I am here, because we are committed to children, to families and to our communities. I usually say that no one takes these jobs to get rich, but that is not entirely true. You do get rich. A different kind of rich. A better kind of rich.

The richness comes from knowing that you make a positive difference in people’s lives.

You save lives. You mend lives. You enrich lives.

The Summit is the opportunity to examine and re-examine, to share and listen, to remember and reaffirm the reasons you chose this profession in the first place. Most important, the Summit is the place to recharge your batteries for another year of success and, yes, heartbreak.

Before we talk about our promising future, we must talk about our present and our challenge today. I want with all my heart to lift you up, acknowledge the amazing work you do every day and thank you for all the families that you have helped and all the children you have saved.

All of those things are true and real. We hold on to them with every fiber of our being as we practice this most difficult of professions. As we look within ourselves, we find the strength to lift families up, to nurture and encourage not just a child’s physical well-being, but also their mental and emotional well-being. It is my intent to support you in whatever I can. We must all support each other. 

But before we can talk about our promise we need to speak several names. We speak their names because, through no fault of their own, they suffered and died. These are children who we collectively knew as a system of care. We start by speaking these names because they remind us of our challenge. They remind us of our responsibility. They remind us of our commitment.

They also remind us of our enormous promise.

I would ask as I read these names we observe a moment of silent prayer or reflection. As we do so, let’s all remember that to say a prayer or lament for all children who are abused and neglected is not enough. Let us also reflect on fulfilling our promise to them so that no child who comes after them suffers the same fate.

Emma Morrison, Bryan Osceola, Fernando Barahona, Jayden Villegas-Morales, Ezra Raphael, Dakota Stiles, Dontrell Melvin. (silence) Thank you.

These are not the only children who have suffered, but we should take the memory of these children as a call to action. This is a call to action for all of us.

My first big challenge is to work together with you to examine ourselves and move forward doing a better job for the people we serve.  We must never stop trying to get better,

And, frankly, we have always worked to get better with each passing year.

I speak with you today when I know some of you have much uncertainty about the future of the Department and our system of care. I am here to tell you today that we will come out of this stronger, better and more committed.

There is an old adage that you cannot keep a good man or woman down. Well that goes double for men and women on a mission, and folks this is a mission. You know what makes us strong? Community! The families we serve are our families. The children we serve are our children.

We must re-embrace our community, our uniqueness, our partnership.

There are many questions about what the title “Interim Secretary” means. Many wonder if am I staying or going.  The truth is that I am working at this position and planning for this Department as if I were going to be the Secretary for the next 20 years. That is the only way to do this job and to do it right.

I know you will do your jobs the same way. There is no room when lives are in our hands to speculate about our personal futures. It is the moment we must seize, with the vigor and strength of an Olympic athlete.

I am thrilled to stand here before you. I am proud to be your Secretary – interim or not. I have worked in the private sector and I have worked as a public servant before coming to the Department.  I tell you today with all sincerity that I have never met people more extraordinary than those I have met while working at the Department, both inside DCF and out.

One of my main responsibilities as Interim Secretary is to listen. For more than a month now, I have listened to the ideas and concerns from many of you and from other Floridians.  I have heard many of you talk about the need for change: change of processes, change in personal accountability, change in relationships in our community, change in style and tone. I agree that change is good. We must all be willing to evolve or we will fail those who are counting on us the most.

However, I am reminded of something Socrates wrote, “The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” I ask you to build the new with me. Build upon the strong foundation we have set over the years. Build upon the strong foundation of partnership, not just within our state but across the country. Build upon our relationships with each other, knowing that those are the true safety nets for our kids and our families.

Can we do this job? Some have suggested we cannot.  Bill Cotterell, a Tallahassee journalist, suggests that we are not doing a bad job, but, rather, we have a bad job that we must do.

People, he says, are DCF’s ONLY concern and we deal with them at the lowest point in their lives. He further theorizes that this is a job that can’t be done but can’t be abandoned. He is right. This is a job we cannot abandon, for the sake of the families and the children.

We can do this job. We will do this job. If not us, who? If not now, when? It is now and it is us together. Don’t listen to those who say we can’t do it. You don’t need to be chastised, you need to be inspired. We must all be inspired to do better. Can we do this job? We can and we will!!!

How can we do it? After all, you have a change in leadership. You are worried despite my statement that we should all do the job as if we are going to be here for 20 years. It is by leading in our communities that will bring stability and strength

Shawn Salamida, CEO of Partnership for Strong Families in Alachua County and serving 13 other counties, wrote an editorial in a Gainesville paper and eloquently stated, “Communities are better poised to support and strengthen families in their neighborhoods. Stability at the community level is key to a strong system that does not falter when we have change in leadership.”

John Cooper, my former boss but now CEO of Kids Central, shared a similar sentiment in an editorial in his local paper.

But who is the community? It is not just the organization that provides direct services to our children and families or what we call “the CBCs.” It is your local DCF leadership, local Child Protective Investigators and Children’s Legal Services attorneys, local case managers and guardians ad litem, local Guardian ad Litem lawyers and children’s advocates, foster parents and biological parents, adoptive parents and parents’ lawyers, judges and the Child Protection Teams, foster youth and former foster youth, substance abuse and mental health professionals and domestic violence experts, law enforcement, and the news media who ensures that the people of our state are informed and involved in the protection of children. There are many more who make our communities strong.

In a review of a recent high-profile case, Judge Michael Hanzman in the 11th Circuit recently wrote about the importance of checks and balances, and of community partnerships.

“The simple fact,” he writes, “is that government can only do so much.” He goes on to say “the safety of our at-risk children is dependent upon the collective community effort.”

You are all part of DCF and the mission! Even if you are not employed by the agency, we are together. We must all take personal responsibility for our families. Don’t point fingers, join hands instead. We can do this!

This is such important work.  While no one else in the universe can achieve perfection, we in child welfare must strive for it. The consequences of our actions and judgments literally affect the well-being, health and sometimes the lives of our children and families.

So how do we strive for perfection? We are giving our front line the tools to help inform their decisions and make better decisions. We are seeking input from all of our stakeholders, our community and the national child welfare community to make sure we are using evidence based practices and best practices. We are partnering with Casey Family Programs, national experts to review our processes.

But here is the ultimate truth. None of these things take the place of our common sense and critical thinking. Nothing takes the place of doing our job by making individual decisions that are the right thing for our children and our families.

And while we want to work together, I also do not believe in staying in your own lane in child welfare. We have to be willing to challenge each other, and listen to alternate points of view. Challenging each other and asking tough questions protect the children in our care and the integrity of those making the decisions.

Because we have such a diverse state, we have to rely on community partners to provide resources and services that best serve their neighbors who need help. What works for families in the rural town of Niceville in the Panhandle may not work for families in the international metropolis of Miami. It won’t be the same for the families living the island life of the Florida Keys as those in the bustling city of Jacksonville. It will not be the same in the beach town of Panama City as in the Tourist Mecca that is Orlando. For that reason, we need to celebrate the partnerships that make Florida’s child welfare system unique, and the partnerships we must value and continue to leverage as we strive to improve.

To celebrate the diversity of our state, I asked our regional leadership to get creative. Each region  put together a short video to show what makes them unique, the different players, partnerships, personalities and community initiatives that make up our child welfare system in this melting pot we call Florida.

The Northern part of the state is made up of the Northwest Region and the Northeast Region.

The Northeast Region is led by Regional Managing Director David Abramowitz. Following a long and illustrious carrier in the Army, the Colonel, as he is affectionately known by his troops in the Northeast, has a no nonsense approach to leadership. He likes to lead by example, personally going out on investigations and keeping close ties to his line staff.

David is joined by his committed CBC and ME partners: Shawn Salamida, Partnership for Strong Families; Lee Kaywork, Family Support Services of North Florida; Irene Toto, Kids First of Florida; Mark Jones,Community Partnership for Children; Joy Andrews, Family Integrity Program; and Sam Sipes, Lutheran Services Florida

The Northwest Region is led by Regional Managing Director Vicki Abrams. Vicki is a veteran social worker. Her approach is family-centered and collaborative.  Her measured approach has earned her the reputation as a problem solver and consensus builder.

Vicki is joined by Ann Harter, Families First Network and Mike Watkins, Big Bend Community Based Care and Managing

The Central part of the State is made up of SunCoast (the western coast of Florida, from Pasco County south to Collier County) and Central (stretching from Marion County at the northern tip, to Highlands County in the southern tip, and reaching both the Atlantic and the Gulf coasts.)

SunCoast is led by Regional Managing Director Mike Carroll. Mike brings strong leadership based on proven performance and accountability. My first official act was to name him the Sun King! While the name is regal, he is a man of the people, valuing all of his staff as part of the team and also being very active in his community as a youth coach and mentor. He is joined by Lorita Shirley, running Eckerd’s operations in both Hillsborough and Pasco/Pinellas; Naderah Salim, Children’s Network of Southwest Florida; Brena Slater, Safe Children Coalition; and Linda McKinnon, Central Florida Behavioral Health Network.

Central is the largest geographic region and is led by Regional Managing Director Bill D’Aiuto.  Bill has spent his whole career as a public servant helping the most vulnerable. He has probably held every job at DCF. He is a committed leader who likes to learn about his team by asking each at meetings to reveal something about themselves that others may be surprised to hear. His team building is subtle but effective. He is joined by John Cooper,  Kids Central; Glen Casel, Community Based Care of Central Florida (Circuits 9 & 18); Teri Saunders at Heartland for Children; Patricia Nellius-Guthrie, Brevard Family Partnership; and Maria Bledsoe, Central Florida Cares Health System.

And now for South Florida, the Southeast Region (FT Pierce, Palm Beach and Broward.) and Southern Region (Miami and the Florida Keys). Words that come to mind about these regions are passionate and diverse.

The Southeast region is led by Dennis Miles. Dennis is a Marine, so he and “The Colonel” have interesting discussions about whether army or marines are tougher and stronger. He joined the Department as a Child Protective Investigator. Although Dennis is tough as nails, he also shows an enormous capacity for compassion. Recently I had the privilege of watching him counsel a protective investigator having doubts about his career choice. He is a multifaceted leader who earns the respect and allegiance of his staff and his partners.

Dennis is joined by Larry Rein, ChildNet in Palm Beach; Emilio Benitez, ChildNet in Broward; Chad Collins, United for Families; Steve Murphy, Deveraux; Ann Berner, Southeast Florida Behavioral Health Network; and Silvia Quintana, Broward Behavioral Health Coalition.

Gilda Ferradaz leads the Southern Region with uncanny poise and what seems like endless knowledge of our system and community. I often joked that Gilda had a magic drawer. No matter what you asked her, she had an answer for you and supporting documents that she pulled out of her desk, as if she was waiting for you to ask the question. I once snuck into her office and looked in the drawer to see how much incredible stuff was in it and it was empty!

Gilda is the definition of servant leader and I was honored to work closely with her in my years in Southern Region. She partners with Fran Allegra, Our Kids of Miami Dade/Monroe and John Dow, South Florida Behavioral Health Network.

I hope you leave here this week with a renewed understanding of the importance of every decision we make, and every action we take. We all are faced daily with terrible situations in our line of work. I want to remind you to never take a tragedy in stride or become complacent.

The children and families we serve truly are counting on us to be diligent and committed to helping them through their challenges. Go out and do a good job and know that I am behind you 100 percent.

“I can be a normal kid now”

Guest post by Denise Beeman Sasiain, foster mother to Summer, 17, who will stay with her foster family as she enters adulthood; Isabella Hope, 3, who they’ve had since birth and adopted last year; Xavier (aka X-man), 2, who they are in the process of adopting; and Daniella Joy, 1, who they’ve also had from birth and recently adopted.

Summer and Karly

Summer and Karly

Many firsts are inconsequential, but others serve as memorable stepping stones: A first day of school, a first speech or a first love. Tonight something spectacular, a first, will happen in the life of our daughter. It might be considered the norm for many, but for Summer, our 17-year-old foster daughter, it is a significant FIRST.

Tonight, while Pierre and I are here at the Child Protection Summit, she will be staying overnight at her best friend’s house.  This first sleepover, for Summer, is symbolic because it heralds in one more way in which she is living a typical teenager’s life.  It has been so much fun to see her excitement and hear her express the joy she feels: “I can’t believe I finally get to stay overnight with my best friend.”

Often when children come from a history of abuse and all the control and secrecy that surrounds it, it is not uncommon for parents to keep their children on a tight leash. For abusive parents, not allowing sleepovers, or even play dates with friends comes not from a posture of keeping kids safe, but from one of keeping secrets in.

But in the system of care, we know that historically not allowing sleepovers stems from our desire to protect children. But to foster children, the end result is the same. To them, it signifies one more way in which their life is not the same.

As a foster parent, I am grateful for the recent changes in the law, championed by Gov. Scott and Sen. Nancy Detert, allowing me more discretion in my parenting to determine what activities are appropriate and beneficial for the children in my care.

Summer’s best friend, Karly, who knows nothing of normalcy or the recent Let Kids be Kids Law, summarized this event succinctly, “Oh, so you can be a normal kid now.”

Here’s what Summer said: “To the average teenager, getting to spend the night at a friend’s house may be something they’re able to do on a regular basis. However, for me it is a privilege I’ve never had.  By law children were only allowed to spend the night IF the other parents were finger-printed and licensed as back-ups. Now, because of new laws in place many children and teens will hopefully get a chance to just hang out and be kids! I know I will enjoy spending the night at my best friend’s house! As she put it, ‘’I’m glad you can finally be normal!’’

On another note, my husband, Pierre and I are ecstatic to be attending our first Summit. We feel like we are a part of history, in which a palatable change has ignited in Florida’s system of care. Laws like Let Kids be Kids, Independent Living  and initiatives like the Quality Parent Initiative all serve as a strong foundation to usher in a new era of enhanced care.

Restart

Guest post by Summer, daughter of foster parents Denise and Pierre. Summer will be entering her junior year of high school at the Academy of Arts & Minds in Coconut Grove, FL.  She majors in creative writing but also loves to draw.  She has chosen to stay with her foster family as she enters adulthood.

Summer's beautiful smile!

Summer

Often times I find myself in a situation that seems all too familiar, yet somehow foreign. I find myself caught, so to say, between one world and the next. I don’t know which road to take or whether I’m doing something the right way or the wrong way. All I can do is follow my gut feeling and wing it (which is normally not the best thing to do).

I get told a lot that I don’t need to make all of these decisions on my own.  Or that it’s okay to screw up here and now. But what people fail to realize is that I often feel as if my previous track record is too much for yet another ‘’failure.’’ I feel like I can’t mess up, like it’s me against the world.

A therapist would say that those ‘’mistakes’’ weren’t your fault – actually most people would. And most of the time, if you’re anything like me, you’ll just brush off what people say. They can’t possibly know what they’re talking about right? Right.

Not a single person in this world will ever come close to facing the hardships you have faced as an individual. No one has lived the same life as you. No one has faced the same constant chastisement or neglect. So the next time someone tells you that ‘’it’s alright,” go ahead and tell them they’re wrong. But remember they are only wrong for falsely sympathizing.

Under most circumstances a youth should never be blamed for the outcome of his/her life. It’s not fair. You weren’t asked to be created and you sure as hell didn’t ask to be put through whatever it is you did go through. You didn’t ask to be beaten or molested. You didn’t ask to go to school every day in long sleeved shirts so that you could cover up the bruises from last night. You didn’t ask to be alone, or to be teased on every day for being the quiet, disassociated freak in the corner. You asked for none of it.

You didn’t ask to be abused or neglected no matter how little or how much it was. You didn’t ask not to be loved. You didn’t ask to be born to a pot-head and a prostitute. You didn’t ask. You asked for none of it, so why the hell does everyone around you keep dishing out such a big plate of hate? No one really knows why. You could search a thousand years and still never find the answer to that. And that’s because there is no answer to it.

The only possible solution is to keep on living; to overcome. To put your best foot forward and forget everyone who set aside their lives to make your own miserable: to restart. Trust me there is a restart button in life, but you’re only going to find it if you really want it.

For a good portion of my life I wallowed around in self-pity, always afraid of what would happen if I stepped outside of my box. I wanted change but I wasn’t willing to take the steps necessary to do so. I couldn’t take them because I was locked in a perpetual chaos. I was stuck floating in some sort of survival mode, and I was afraid.

Christmas photo with my new family.

Christmas photo with my foster family.

That part of me changed shortly after arriving in foster care. I felt safe, and most importantly, I knew I was safe. I knew there were new people in my life that were more than willing to do whatever it took to make sure I would never go through what I did before.

It’s been more than two years since my placement in foster care. I no longer need to worry about whether or not I’ll be able to live, rather I find myself thinking about how I will live.

A wise man once said, ‘’The circumstances of one’s birth are irrelevant. It is what you do with the gift of life that determines who you are.’’ Often times I find myself reflecting upon those words in moments of weakness, because I know that they are true.

One of my baby sisters in my new family.

One of my baby sisters in my foster family.

Saving Ben

Guest post by Christy Lopez-Acevedo, Esq., Managing Attorney for Children’s Legal Services.

Ben came into the foster system in 2012. He is a victim of sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, exposure to substance abuse and exposure to domestic violence.  At first we only knew about some of the abuse, but as the case proceeded we learned about what this child had actually suffered, so we moved immediately to terminate parental rights (TPR).

He was placed in a foster home pending an Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children (ICPC )for possible placement with his grandfather. During the ICPC process, the child deteriorated mentally to the point of possible psychosis. The psychologist working with the child was integral in this process.  He evaluated the child and then worked with the child’s therapist, the foster parents and the grandfather to literally save this child from becoming completely psychotic.  At this point, it was recommended that he not change placements until he was stabilized. He was bonding with the foster parents and this was the first time is a long time that he had a stable home.

We were very concerned about Ben’s mental state. We knew that he would eventually need to move with his grandfather but did not want to do anything that would jeopardize his emotional well-being.  Also, we needed a way to keep the foster mother involved as the child had developed a significant bond with her.

The time came for him to visit with his grandfather. We were all concerned as to possible deterioration due to this visit. I asked the foster agency if they would pay for the foster mother to travel with the child to West Virginia to visit the grandfather. That way, the child would feel safe while seeing his future home for the first time. The agency did not hesitate to approve this. Not only did the foster mother travel with the child, but so did the case manager. They extended the weekend visit to a Monday so that the child could receive his mental health intakes and services wouldn’t be delayed in any way. The visit went great and the child was looking forward to coming back as there were other children in the home and he wanted to be with his grandfather.

Shortly after the trip we went before the Judge to discuss placement. Prior to the hearing, I met with the psychologist and discussed the type of transition that we needed. We agreed that it needed to be smooth and the foster parent and grandfather needed to work together.

The court granted the change in placement on a Friday. After speaking with the grandfather and the foster parents, it was decided that the child would spend one more night with his foster parents so they could spend special time with the child and allow him to be part of packing his things. I then asked both the foster parents and the grandfather to make it a positive “goodbye” on Saturday morning so he would see that the foster parents were part of his family.

The grandfather thanked the foster parents for all they had done and promised that they would remain in the child’s life. The child’s psychologist and therapist will be working with the providers in West Virginia to ensure that the proper services are being provided and there is a continuation of what the child was receiving. So many moving parts came together to help this young boy so that he could have a fresh, safe, nurturing life.

You are safe, secure and loved

Guest post by Denise Beeman Sasiain, foster mother to Summer, 17, who will stay with her foster family as she enters adulthood; Isabella Hope, 3, who they’ve had since birth and adopted last year; Xavier (aka X-man), 2, who they are in the process of adopting; and Daniella Joy, 1, who they’ve also had from birth and recently adopted.

 

Denise and Izzie

Denise and Izzie

It is just past midnight and Isabella, our 3 year old, has woken up three times since we put her to bed.  Instantly upon waking, she will loudly cry, then call mommy, and come running in a panic.   Each time she gets up, I hold her, rock her and tell her, “You are safe, you are secure, you are loved and you are mommy’s dream come true.”  She nods her head sleepily, and I tuck her back in bed.   Some nights she sleeps uninterrupted and peaceful, but tonight has been particularly challenging and her fear level is palpable.

Isabella’s inability to readily fall asleep and stay asleep is not a new development.  She was exposed to cocaine and prescription opioids while she was in her mother’s womb. In addition to going through withdrawal as a newborn, she would sometimes sleep only three or four hours in total during a 24-hour period.  She experienced jittery and suffering tremors, poor feeding, stiff muscles, a very high startle response and colic.

When Izzie was about 15 months old, she started occupational therapy.  Evaluations showed she had significant sensory motor dysfunction in both tactile and auditory processing arenas.  She also displayed chronic feeding sensitivities and a slight fine motor delay.  At about 18 months, she started speech therapy for her language delays.

Izzie, Pierre and X-man

Izzie, Pierre and X-man

Izzie improved quickly in regards to fine motor skill development, but it took a longer time for her to catch up in regards to the intelligibility and development of her speech.  But this last spring, at 3 ½ years old, she had a princess tea party with her speech pathologist, celebrating her graduation from speech therapy.

However, things like the texture of food is a still a significant challenge and major deterrent to her eating.  Isabella raises the bar in regards to the term “picky eater.”  There are only a very few foods which she will consume.  Her occupation therapist worked with her consistently during a two-month period before she was willing to eat a banana.

All the noise at Disney really affected Izzie.

All the noise at Disney really affected Izzie.

Her auditory processing abilities are still a challenge – ordinary things like running a vacuum cleaner or a blender make her extremely agitated. We have learned to be prepared for the inevitable triggers and  volume-reducing earmuffs have made a huge difference. At our recent trip to the Magic Kingdom at Disney, the high volume hand dryers in the restrooms sent her into a major panic and tantrum. When we go to a performance like the Nutcracker ballet or a Disney show, we plan ahead which parent will more than likely spend the duration of it out in the lobby.

In the big scheme of things, if Izzie doesn’t like loud dance clubs as a young adult, we as parents won’t be too upset!  But we are hopeful that her tactile and auditory sensory motor challenges, as well as her sleep issues, will continue to improve.   She is now average in height and weight and thriving.    Her day school teachers rave about her, saying, “If only all our students were like Isabella.”  In all respects, now at 3 1/2  years old, she is happy, outgoing, intelligent, warm-hearted and funny.  As parents, we could not be happier and prouder.   In every way, she is our dream come true baby girl. In recognition of our hope-fulfilled adoption in May of 2012, we named her Isabella Hope Sasiain.

A true princess.

A true princess.

As with all our children, we educate ourselves on their particular challenges, procure the healthiest amount of positive intervention possible, expect a miraculous outcome, but prepare ourselves if the end result falls short of our hopeful expectations.  Moreover, life has taught us to embrace our shortfalls and weaknesses, especially when the outcome is not within our control.  Our weaknesses can make us stronger.

If you or someone you know are pregnant, or may become pregnant, and are taking prescription pain medication, visit www.BornDrugFreeFL.com or call 1-877-233-5656 for information and resources. 

“Success is determined not by whether or not you face obstacles, but by your reaction to them. And if you look at these obstacles as a containing fence, they become your excuse for failure. If you look at them as a hurdle, each one strengthens you for the next.” 
― Ben CarsonGifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story