TALLAHASSEE - After weeks under fire following the deaths of four children, David Wilkins on Thursday abruptly resigned as secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families.
Gov. Rick Scott said in a statement that Wilkins had stepped down "to pursue opportunities in the private sector and to provide more attention to his foundation."
Scott also tapped as interim secretary Esther Jacobo, the regional managing director for DCF's southern region, which serves Miami-Dade and Monroe counties.
Wilkins has endured a steady drumbeat of criticism since May 16, when the first of the four children died. All four had had contact with DCF before their deaths, which critics said could have been prevented.
Meanwhile, the embattled Wilkins struggled to implement a new child protection initiative that he said would "transform" DCF. It had been in the works throughout most of his tenure, but was hampered by the intense scrutiny it received.
In the last week, state Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood and chairwoman of the Senate Children and Families committee, said she would hold a hearing on the children's deaths and what she called the "turmoil" at DCF.
Part of that turmoil concerned the state's 19 community based care organizations, which deliver local child-welfare services. Wilkins had clashed with the agencies in an effort to add terms to their contracts that would give him more control - including the right to name their chief executive officers and other top staff. The agencies fought back by recruiting lawmakers to help them rewrite part of state law that created the community-based care system, which was designed to shift many child-welfare duties from the state to local non-profit organizations.
Wilkins frequently said he was trying to make the local agencies more accountable.
"I appreciated the opportunity to serve the children and families of this great state," he wrote to Scott Thursday.
The resignation caught Kurt Kelly, executive director of the Florida Coalition for Children, which represents the community based care organizations, by surprise.
"We wish him the best," Kelly said. "He came in with a passion and a desire to implement his ideas and philosophies. .This was never personal. It was always about the children."
The group said it was also looking forward to working with Jacobo who, it noted, "has been on the frontlines" of the community-based care system.
Scott had said in late June that he had complete confidence in Wilkins, whom he tapped in January 2011to lead DCF.
"David did a great job in leading the state's top child protection agency and his service is deeply appreciated," said Scott 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, in her last position, supervised the delivery of foster care, adoptions, prevention, child protective investigations and the young adults in the Road to Independence program.
"I have confidence in (Jacobo's) ability and leadership," said Alan Abramowitz, executive director of the Florida Guardian ad Litem program. "She is a great advocate. The governor made a great selection."
Jacobo also has led DCF's Substance Abuse and Mental Health Program and served as deputy director of its Children's Legal Services unit. She has been division chief of the domestic crimes unit at the Miami-Dade state attorney's office.
Jacobo received her law degree from St. Thomas University.