Published: Jul 19, 2013 5:17 PM EDT

MIAMI (AP) - The head of Florida's child welfare agency abruptly resigned over growing dissension with the agency's private contractors as he worked to transform the agency, particularly the role of child protective investigators, according to a state official familiar with the situation.
    
The official was not authorized to discuss the circumstances of the resignation publicly and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity Friday, a day after David Wilkins stepped down.
    
Wilkins has declined to discuss publicly why he resigned, but he told the AP Friday that his heart lies in helping children and that he'll continue that in some form in the private sector.
    
Miami's regional managing director, Esther Jacobo, will be interim secretary of the agency, which has a nearly $3 billion budget and a staff of about 11,600. DCF's chief of staff, Amanda Prater, also resigned abruptly last week. The resignations also come as the agency faced intense scrutiny for alleged missteps in handling a handful of child deaths in recent months.
    
Wilkins was in the process of dramatically overhauling the role of child protective investigators by adding a new tool that would help them assess whether children were in danger when they made home visits. He also was working to create a system where the investigators linked families to prevention services such as substance abuse and mental health treatment, day care help or anger management classes. Since taking on the job in 2011, he hired 100 new investigators, mostly in South Florida, reduced their caseloads and bolstered training. Jacobo said further improvements will be a priority.
    
But the private contractors, who have influential board members and powerful political connections, balked at the transformation and were vocal in criticism against Wilkins, accusing him of trying to exert too much control over them as he renegotiated their contracts and undermining the goals of the privatized system.
    
Officials across the state had taken notice of the discord.
    
"I think there are some severe systemic problems at DCF. I think they extend to the people that are running this transformation in Tallahassee. I think it is not well thought out," said Miami Judge Jeri Beth Cohen, who praised improvements made under the privatized system.
    
Sen. Eleanor Sobel, chairwoman of the state Senate's Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee, had also recently called for a hearing into the child deaths and the turmoil between Wilkins and the contractors.
    
"We believe there was overreach by DCF in areas we believe they shouldn't be involved in," said Kurt Kelly, CEO of the statewide coalition the represents the contractors. "We never made it personal. We always kept it about the policy and about what's right for children."
    
Florida became the first state to fully privatize its child welfare programs in 2005, inking multimillion dollar contracts with 20 child welfare contractors that the more than 17,000 foster children in the system. The Legislature privatized the system after Rilya Wilson's disappearance made national headlines when a DCF caseworker lied about visiting her foster home.
    
Officials have said the change has been for the best, but it's been difficult to measure success. And several years into the process, the agency didn't have a standardized system for evaluating the contractors.
    
Wilkins told the AP he never intended to abolish the privatized system.
    
"I thought it was better than when DCF was doing the function and they were making progress. I just don't think we were there yet in terms of the optimal model," he said.
    
As DCF has tried to increase oversight, the providers pushed back using their political clout, and DCF had little recourse. The contracts were written in the infancy of privatization and lacked immediate consequences, including financial penalties or probationary periods for failure to comply.
    
While the system is better, Wilkins said it still needs to evolve. The state spends about 10 percent more money under the privatized model even though the number of children in foster care has decreased, he said.
    
But adoptions have increased dramatically, jumping from 2,008 in the 2000-01 fiscal year, when the state was in charge, to 3,250 in fiscal year 2011-12. Child abuse deaths for those who had a history with the department have mostly remained steady.
    
"Before I took the job of DCF Secretary, I never would have believed the magnitude of political agendas and infighting that occurs all in the name of helping children. Despite these challenges, we have made great progress. Despite progress, we must recognize that ongoing changes are needed," Wilkins said in an email to staff one week ago.
    
He said he'd just met a teen who had been in foster care for nearly a year and was recently moved from her foster home to one in another city, along with a new school, just a week before the semester was ending. The girl told Wilkins she would likely flunk many of her courses because she was starting so late in the year and had lost her friends and support system.
    
"Is this the best we can do? Why wasn't this young lady placed in a home in her own city? Why were counseling services not provided? Who is paying attention to her academic and social concerns?" he questioned in the email.
    
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Follow Kelli Kennedy on Twitter: http://twitter.com/kkennedyAP

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