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    Protecting the vulnerable

    Outlook looks grim for health and social programs for at-risk populations, since they were falling short even before the budget crisis began.

    By DEBORAH HARDIN WAGNER
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published January 13, 2002



    [Times art: Teresanne Cossetta]
    Judging from outward appearances, you wouldn't peg Sabrina Romann for a "bad" kid.

    The 14-year-old New Port Richey girl had what looked like a normal family life with her big sister and mom and dad, a committed couple she regarded, even then, as "awesome parents." She was outgoing and creative. She knew she was loved.

    But after failing eighth grade, disobedience somehow became Sabrina's trademark as her hope, along with her ambition, evaporated.

    "I wasn't gonna listen to any of my teachers. I was always getting into physical fights at school -- usually with jocks with smart mouths," Sabrina said. "I didn't care about my future. To this day, I can't tell you why."

    Sabrina began doing drugs in earnest ("It came pretty easy, since some of my friends' parents did them, too") and hit rock-bottom when a marijuana pipe was found in her purse at school. She was arrested and put on one year of probation.

    That's when Sabrina's life started to change, with the help of the PACE Center in Pasco.

    With small classes every day and counseling sessions freely interspersed, Sabrina was able to quit her habit and get back on track academically. Four years later, she is a full-time student at Pasco-Hernando Community College, having won a scholarship competition sponsored by PACE supporters. Now her future is as boundless as her enthusiasm.

    Sabrina doesn't want to think about where she would be today if PACE had not been there "to talk to me and to kick my butt."

    "I'd probably have a needle in my arm in a gutter somewhere," she says.

    Thankfully, she will never have to find out. But unless state lawmakers spare the PACE budget from further cuts -- and begin to pay for it and other early-intervention programs in a way that better serves the needs of Florida's troubled youth -- other girls like Sabrina may not prove so lucky.

    'The people who truly need'

    When the Legislature finished its grim budget-cutting exercise in December, Gov. Jeb Bush declared that "we're taking care of the people who truly need the help of government during tough times."

    He is right only by half.

    For a better Florida

    Part One
    Education doublespeak
    The evidence is overwhelming, but no one wants to admit that the state is falling short in education funding, including the governor, who denies the education budget has been cut.
    (Jan 6, 2002)

    Redrawing districts is cutthroat
    New lines must be drawn to keep up with the state's growth, but it is a conflict of interest for legislators to draw their own districts.
    (Jan 6, 2002)

    Editorials
    Education's lost advocacy
    In a time of financial peril for Florida education, two powerful images are emerging.
    (Jan 6, 2002)

    What's N.C. doing right?
    North Carolina spends less per pupil on public education than Florida, but has higher test scores. (Dec 30, 2001)

    Losing ground
    In spite of roaring job growth and increased tax revenue, Florida fell behind other states in a number of critical areas. (Nov. 14, 2001)

    What happened?
    Florida poured more money than ever into its schools. A record number of its residents had jobs. (Nov. 14, 2001)

    Wage-earners work harder just to keep up
    The disposable income of Floridians slipped in the 1990s from just above the national average to just below it. (Nov. 14, 2001)

    Program can claim to save lives, money
    Florida's Healthy Start program isgiven credit in the battle against infant mortality. Other causes await similar leadership (Nov. 14, 2001)

    Programs for low-income seniors and children did emerge from the special session in better financial shape than expected. Several major cuts that had been in the offing were restored, at least temporarily, while others -- including a whopping $72-million reduction slated for Florida's juvenile-justice agency -- were scaled back using dollars freed up by the delay of the intangibles tax break.

    But services for poor seniors, persons living with HIV or AIDS, and troubled or delinquent youth -- including the program that helped Sabrina turn her life around -- all suffered significant reductions whose effects are already reverberating in the Tampa Bay area and beyond. And even those programs that squeaked by unscathed know that their reprieve may prove short-lived once the budget-cutting begins anew in the regular session that opens in nine days.

    But budget cuts are only part of the picture, and their singular focus should obscure neither the broader context nor the irony underlying the governor's claim. The reality is that Florida cannot be said to be meeting the needs of its vulnerable residents after the recent budget cuts because Florida was not meeting those needs before them. In almost every case, programs already cut, as well as those feared on the chopping block for next session, have been funded at a level sufficient to address only a fraction of the outstanding need. It's not so much that Floridians have lost ground as that many never gained it.

    Despite a nationally renowned Healthy Start program and near-unparalleled success in improving infant vitality, more Florida babies now than in 1990 are born underweight.

    Despite a near doubling of the child-welfare budget in recent years, the number of Florida children who die from abuse or neglect is on the rise, not decline.

    Despite extensive outreach and funding through the Healthy Kids program, more than 2-million Floridians, including 700,000 children, remain uninsured.

    Despite recent efforts to get prescription drugs to low-income seniors, more than 20,000 eligible seniors no longer have access to the program.

    Despite proven models of success for pulling troubled youth back from the precipice of a life of crime, every day kids wait for help.

    Too many Sabrinas never get it.

    Jail for juveniles

    On the eve of special session, advocates urged Gov. Bush to extend to juvenile offenders his operating philosophy of caring for Florida's most vulnerable citizens.

    "All the children served by (the Department of Juvenile Justice) are vulnerable and have some of the greatest needs. They are children who . . . have often fallen through the cracks in other systems," Roy Miller, director of the Florida Children's Campaign, wrote Bush.

    But if Bush's "vulnerability" cloak applied to juveniles, it did not offer much protection. The Florida Department of Juvenile Justice was hit the hardest of all agencies, sustaining what amounted to an annualized reduction of 15 percent. The Department lost more than 600 staff positions, many of them juvenile probation officers trained to supervise and help redirect young offenders. Of all current DJJ services, prevention and diversion programs fared the worst.

    Lawmakers' decision to sacrifice prevention, most of all, comes as little surprise. Even before the latest reductions, the DJJ budget of roughly $720-million devoted less than 12 percent to prevention and diversion. A recent legislative audit criticized DJJ for detaining juveniles guilty of only minor crimes, at significant financial and human cost, instead of intervening with early prevention and treatment.

    "(DJJ) has increased the number of deep-end commitment beds from 2,000 in 1994 to 7,000 this year," says Jason Zaborske, the Children's Campaign's associate director. "They seem to be moving to become the Department of Juvenile Corrections instead of Juvenile Justice."

    Mary "Dee" Richter, director of the Tallahassee-based Florida Network of Youth & Family Services, agrees. "It takes such a little bit of time, attention and personal focus to bring these children back, it is disheartening that Florida appears to be investing more in the costly deep end of our state government systems for children."

    Nothing in the recent cuts alter that funding imbalance. Florida's CINS/FINS program, the network of local shelters that house and counsel troubled youngsters, including chronic truants and runaways, was cut by $4.3-million for the rest of this year and anticipates an additional $2-million shortfall in federal earnings. That's akin to having their annual budget of $32-million sliced by a third -- less than a year after their general-revenue funding was shaved by 7 percent.

    The impact is already being felt. Around the state, more than 300 counselors are being laid off, including 21 at Family Resources, Inc., Pinellas' CINS/FINS agency. Family Resources has already had to cut back on the prevention counselors who work with Pinellas youth while in shelter or detention. And it has eliminated its successful Truancy Court program, an early intervention program aimed at helping to reduce habitual truancy and daytime crimes among middle-schoolers.

    Family Resources president Jane L. Harper knows the cuts can only hurt children and families -- and society at large.

    "Many of these families are working poor and do not have the income to afford fee for service counseling," Harper says. "With the economy, we can expect more family crises, not fewer. The sad part is that if we can intervene at the right time, many of these children and families can get back on track. Otherwise they will end up costing us more in both human and financial terms."

    PACE (Practical, Academic and Cultural Education) centers were also scaled back, though not nearly to the extent as CINS/FINS. PACE-Pasco -- the program that proved so invaluable to Sabrina, one of only 19 around the state -- saw its DJJ funding reduced by 5 percent. Pasco County Commissioner Ann Hildebrand, who serves as PACE-Pasco's president, knows that future cuts, should they come next session, will not be easily absorbed.

    "We've survived this small crisis, but what is in store for us? I worry about that," she says. "I am hopeful we will not leave these vulnerable young women behind in our efforts at fiscal restraint."

    The truth is that lawmakers are cutting prevention and diversion at a time when Florida needs more of these services, not less. In a state with an exploding teen population and where one of every six homeless Floridians is a runaway child or teen, CINS/FINS cannot, on its current budget, serve all of those in need.

    Consider Family Resources' now-defunct Truancy Court. Last year, the program helped 150 students and their families -- more than three out of four of which later stayed out of the juvenile-justice system. Yet, in Pinellas, more than one of every nine middle school students -- about 2,800 kids -- were absent more than 21 days and therefore eligible for the strictures and help of Truancy Court. Even before being cut, this successful program was able to serve a mere fraction of eligible students.

    Miller knows the fate that awaits troubled youth who don't receive the early help they need.

    "In the next decade, Florida will witness a 30 percent increase in the juvenile population," he says. "When you're either holding the status quo or scaling back juvenile prevention programs, as Florida is doing, that's a recipe for disaster. The saddest part is, when these services aren't available, kids end up going into deeper-end commitment -- whether they need to be there or not."

    More abused children

    The state's effort to protect abused children is a prime example of both the narrow accuracy -- and broader fallacy -- of the governor's claim. Taking to heart Bush's charge to protect the most vulnerable, lawmakers in December largely spared the Department of Children and Families, cutting its budget by the relatively slight amount of $7-million. Yet, ironically, at the same time they were "protecting" DCF's budget, they received chilling news: that the death toll among Florida's abused children is on the rise, with most deaths preventable had services been available.

    The revelation led child-welfare expert and former DCF secretary Ed Feaver bluntly to tell the Miami Herald: "We don't have a fundamental commitment to children and families."

    Republican leaders may be tempted to use recent investments in child welfare as justification for budget rollbacks, if not political cover for themselves. In the last three years, Florida has indeed nearly doubled its spending in this area. But the adequacy of that investment must be measured against the growth in and needs of Florida's child population, not against spending deficiencies of the past. Florida's investment has not produced a more improved record of child safety, advocates say, because the new dollars have supported a surge in investigations rather than better prevention or foster-care services.

    "While the overall budget has increased 85 percent, the majority of those funds have gone into investigations and the systems related to the initial complaint -- not on foster care, therapeutic services or prevention," says Jack Levine, president of the Center for Florida's Children. "Foster parents are still paid at 50 cents an hour, a paltry 2 percent increase in the past five years."

    To his credit, Bush has also put his weight behind the statewide expansion of Healthy Families Florida, a child-abuse prevention program that uses voluntary home visits to help new mothers become better parents. An independent evaluation released last summer confirmed the program's phenomenal success -- something Pinellas County, as one of the earliest Healthy Family sites, could have predicted.

    But even now, Healthy Families is able to serve only less than one-third of eligible families.

    It is not alone in needing more money. Secretary Kathleen Kearney told lawmakers last fall that DCF requires an extra $201-million next year to "remedy those needs that have continued to be unmet." In addition to almost 40 program areas where the department's estimate of need was outpaced by population growth -- and problems caused by too few caseworkers -- Kearney found many instances "where our core service level still fell below the basic standards we should be meeting."

    Lawmakers' first order of business should be to rescue those frail and elderly Floridians the special session left perched, as House Minority Leader Lois Frankel put it, "on the edge of a cliff." Without reauthorization and restored funding, vital services such as Florida's Medically Needy program, which covers catastrophic drug and medical costs that push families into poverty, will be eliminated. That will leave nearly 40,000 Floridians without coverage -- and possibly life-saving care.

    But a number of programs will also need new funds if they are simply to maintain their current, if inadequately low, levels of service. In addition to DCF and Healthy Families, Healthy Kids -- which provides low-cost health insurance to children of the working poor -- has documented the need for an additional $63-million, without which it will have to cease enrollment and begin attritioning thousands of kids out of the program.

    Most leaders and commentators have been focused, of late, on budget cuts, and understandably so. Though reasonable people can disagree on its origins, the budget crisis facing Florida is real and pressing. But the health and social needs of Florida's at-risk populations will not freeze in place while the crisis is being resolved. Those needs are growing by the moment, compounding the shortfalls of the past that have allowed them to fester. "Protecting the vulnerable" this session will take more than knowing where and when to cut. It will take new money -- and resolve -- to keep Floridians from losing any more ground.

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