(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.