Esther Jacobo, the interim director of the state Department of Children and Families, has directed Pete Digre, assistant deputy secretary of operations, to conduct a "thorough review of all child fatalities due to abuse and neglect in 2013 where there was prior involvement by the department," a measure she calls the agency's "Number One Priority."
Two-year-old Jayden Antonio Villegas-Morales became the fifth Florida youngster to die since May after having already come to the attention of state child-protection administrators.
"I am deeply disturbed by the recent child deaths that have occured around the state due to abuse and neglect," Jacobo said in a statement released Friday afternoon.
She was appointed to the DCF position after former Secretary David Wilkins abruptly resigned amid a growing scandal over the children's deaths.
Jacobo said "These tragic events demand a detailed examination and analysis so we can fully understand what happened and identify actions we can take to prevent future tragedies from taking place."
She advised Digre to "deploy whatever resources are necessary to accomplish this as expeditiously as possible."
Also in her statement to the assistant secretary:
"Please direct each of the Regional Managing Directors to investigate whether there are opportunities for the department to leverage the resources of local law enforcement agencies to strengthen our child protective investigation efforts. Judge Cindy S. Lederman, Circuit Judge, 11th Judicial Circuit Court, Juvenile Division, has suggested we explore models similar to those in place in Pinellas, Manatee, Seminole, Pasco, Broward and Hillsborough counties.
"If there are steps we can take to improve our processes or increase our capacity to ensure the safety of the children in our care, we must not hesitate to take them. Child protection is an ever-evolving work - and we must constantly examine our practices so we can be responsive, diligent and effective."
She also thanked the "extraordinary commitment that is evident in our child protection teams throughout the state."