Authentic Youth Engagement
I have been privileged to work for over 30 years in the service of children, youth and families. The health, wellbeing and safety of children and youth has been my passion starting with my work at the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office in 1992. As a young prosecutor, I worked with Domestic Violence Survivors and their children, prosecuting perpetrators of violence and seeking justice and accountability on behalf of those survivors. I went on to oversee the Human Trafficking Unit, the Juvenile Division and the Domestic Crimes Unit. It was there that I first experienced the power of youth voice born out of pain and strength. The youth that survived human trafficking, domestic violence, street gangs and so many other challenges spoke the language of trauma and resilience. Compelled to speak in courtrooms and deposition rooms to lawyers, judges and juries could be simultaneously cathartic and traumatic, for the youth. For those of us who engaged with them, it was unforgettable and impactful to hear their experiences and attempt to provide them with some relief and closure. There, the impact of their voice was often on the specific situation that brought them in contact with the Criminal Justice System. It would not be until later in my career that I would witness the power of youth voice in action to impact, not just a particular situation, but an entire complex system, made up of courts, government agencies, non-profits and elected officials.
In 2008 I joined the Florida Department of Children and Families where I served in several roles, including as Secretary. It was at the Department that I witnessed how youth not only told their personal lived experiences, but also provided valuable insight into how the professionals in child welfare impacted them both positively and negatively. Their honest assessments provided a road map to better the lives of other youth both presently in child welfare and for youth in child welfare in the future. It was a powerful combination of authentic engagement and incorporating voices of individuals with lived experience to drive positive system change. This authentic engagement amplifies the impact; giving voice to needed systems changes to be heard by lawmakers, agency heads, CEOs and our community.
That is why when I joined Citrus Family Care Network in 2019, and Citrus became the Community-Based Care Lead Agency in Miami-Dade and Monroe Counties that same year, it was a top priority to establish a Youth Advisory Council (YAC) made up of teens and young adults currently or previously in foster care.
I am proud that we established our YAC in October 2019 with three overarching goals to:
- Provide recommendations, input, and feedback to enhance or support Citrus FCN, in general, and, more specifically, our Youth Services Department.
- Provide recommendations, input, and feedback to enhance or support delivery of services in the child welfare system of care.
- Conduct outreach in the community to support Citrus FCN’s efforts to recruit foster and adoptive parents.
Our YAC has become an integral part of everything that we do. They recommend operational improvements, engage prospective foster and adoptive parents as well as Guardian ad Litem volunteers during training, participate in our Community-Based Care Alliance meetings, assist with planning events and initiatives for youth and families, conduct advocacy with elected officials locally and in Tallahassee, and they were a driving force in staring our Racial Equity and Inclusion initiative.
The list above only captures a fraction of their efforts. They have faced the challenges presented by the pandemic head on and have persevered to meet on a monthly basis to get stuff done and make things happen.
The work of our YAC has shown how remarkable our youth truly are, and how valuable their voices are.
Authentic youth engagement in child welfare is vitally important. Meaningful participation in policymaking and developing operational improvements validates the significance of their lived experience and encourages youth to be active participants in shaping their futures. Their feedback and suggestions are also key to making a difference for children and families involved in care currently and in the future. I have heard our YAC leader often refer to the youth currently and formerly in care as “our brothers and sisters.” There is a power to those words that is almost indescribable because the impact of the advocacy is fully felt in the processes and policies that we continue to improve to honor and serve the youth in our care. Their motivation to advocate is personal and born of the desire to improve the lives not only for themselves but for all of their brother and sisters in care.
By Esther Jacobo, Esq.
Esther Jacobo is the Director of Citrus Family Care Network, a division of Citrus Health Network, which serves as the Community Based Care Lead Agency for child welfare in Miami-Dade and Monroe Counties.
Most recently, Ms. Jacobo served as Chief Assistant State Attorney for Operations at the Miami Dade State Attorney’s Office serving under State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle. She returned to the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, where she started her legal career in 1992, in May of 2014. Ms. Jacobo had numerous responsibilities including the Human Trafficking Unit, Career Criminal Unit, Juvenile Division, Community Prosecutions and Media Relations. She was also responsible for a number of Felony Divisions.
Prior to re-joining the State Attorney’s Office, Ms. Jacobo was the Secretary for the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF), a position to which she was appointed by Governor Scott. In this role, Ms. Jacobo managed a $3 billion budget and close to 12 thousand employees.
Ms. Jacobo earned her Law Degree from St. Thomas University in Miami in 1992. That same year, Janet Reno appointed her to the Miami- Dade State Attorney’s Office as an Assistant State Attorney. She served in several capacities. She litigated over 100 cases, including homicides and complex sexual batteries, of which over 60 were jury trials. Her assignments included Division Chief of the Domestic Crimes Unit, where she served before taking a position at the law firm of Elser & and Foster-Morales in 2007. Ms. Jacobo has dedicated her entire public service career to the safety and well-being of Florida’s children and families and her community.