Do Florida leaders care about vulnerable children?

The Miami HeraldApril 23, 2014 

Gov. Rick Scott visited a Department of Children & Families service center in Opa-locka on Tuesday to tout additional funding and staffing for the troubled agency’s child protection system. MIAMI HERALD PHOTO

Gov. Scott and state lawmakers seem intent -- and content -- to do just enough so that they can crow that they've helped protect Florida's vulnerable children. But a closer look at their actions makes clear that they learned nothing from the Herald's harrowing series Innocents Lost. Either that, or they really, really don't care.

Because otherwise, they would spare no effort to build upon the good that Mr. Scott's proposal to spend $39 million for more child protective investigators will bring. They would understand that removing children from abusive environments is just the beginning. They would be falling over themselves to provide the kinds of services to make family reunification real and lasting.

But in this, the year of $1.3 billion in new revenue, lawmakers are straining at the leash to fund an aquarium, a medical simulator, a military museum and an observation tower for downtown Miami.

Services for dysfunctional families? Total blind spot. It's incomprehensible.

Look, there's nothing wrong with bringing home the bacon. It's what lawmakers do and what their constituents expect -- reaping their piece of a revenue windfall to help improve the quality of their lives and their communities.

But if lawmakers still can't agree that substance-abuse, mental-health, domestic-violence and anger-management services are absolutely crucial to saving children's lives -- and giving tremendously troubled adults a chance to live productive lives and raise healthy families -- then they are willfully ignoring what it really takes to make a difference.

Sen. Joe Negron calls it bailing out abusers, something he refuses to do. But that's a glib and narrow-minded approach. It's every bit as ineffective as denying rehabilitative and job-training services to prison inmates because it would be "coddling" them.

Neither group is very sympathetic, and each must pay a debt to society for their crimes. But, eventually, no matter their unsavory behavior, they are going to be walking among civilized society again.

In the case of those who have neglected or abused their children, they, indeed, may be brought back into some unlucky child's orbit. Shouldn't that happen only if they are drug free, in control of their tempers, or in treatment for mental-health challenges?

Deny adults these services and the deluge of children who will be removed from their homes because of the additional investigators, ultimately, won't be returned to improved circumstances.

Senate President Don Gaetz, at the very least, gets that all this will take money. He has articulated that understanding for weeks now: "I think in child welfare we have gone on the cheap, and I think that's been a mistake."

But he hasn't put the power of his position behind his words. He hasn't been a leader here, he hasn't walked the walk -- and neither has the governor, who, unfortunately, has gone MIA in the past on issues he swears are of utmost importance.

They need to be as appalled and outraged that, over six years, 477 children died while in DCF's care as are residents in the communities where they were abused and neglected to death.

The concern and anger expressed at the Herald's standing-room-only town hall might enlighten foot-dragging elected officials. They should take a look -- Then they might catch a clue as to the magnitude of the problem they are refusing to address.

Unless it true that they really, really don't care.

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