Cuts could eliminate youth programs
By BRIDGET HALL GRUMET, Times Staff Writer
NEW PORT RICHEY -- Tia Gudel used to be a class-cutting, cigarette-smoking, belligerent teen.
Now she's a focused 16-year-old with passing grades and dreams of becoming a pediatric nurse. She's been a student at the PACE Center for Girls in New Port Richey for the past year and a half, and she credits the day program with her turnaround.
"They know what's going on with you and they care," Tia said of the day school's teachers and counselors. "I think that's what keeps me out of trouble."
But she fears thousands of other teens like her won't get the same help.
Gov. Jeb Bush's proposed budget for next year, unveiled last month, would eliminate the funding for the PACE centers in New Port Richey and 18 other communities -- a $9.7-million savings in a budget Bush said was full of "tough cuts."
The PACE centers wouldn't be the only ones forced to close. Other cuts would eliminate the financial support for the New Port Richey Marine Institute, another school for delinquent teens. Funding for runaway services would also wither, forcing the closure of at least one of the shelters in New Port Richey, Brooksville or Polk County.
It's still early in the budget season, and the cuts are only proposed. Legislators could amend the budget to include funding for these programs, but they would have to pull the dollars from something else.
"It's going to be a tough year based on the economy and tightness of funds," state Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, said at the Pasco County legislative delegation meeting last month.
Bush aides say the multimillion dollar cuts to these juvenile programs are needed to balance the budget in tough economic times. Last year voters overwhelmingly passed an amendment to reduce class sizes, and now the state must find ways to pay for it, governor's spokeswoman Alia Faraj said.
"This was a difficult budget year and the governor had to make some tough decisions," Faraj said.
But youth advocates say the proposed cuts would wipe out an entire network of programs that keep troubled teens away from the more expensive juvenile detention system.
"Let's do the math: Keeping a child in secure confinement ranges from $31,000 to nearly $55,000 per year," said Roy Miller, president of Children's Campaign, Inc. "Successful front-end solutions such as day treatment programs and prevention services for girls, meanwhile, cost less than $12,000 per child per year."
"They always talk about the success that juvenile crime is down," added Robert Patterson, regional director for Associated Marine Institutes, the group that runs the New Port Richey Marine Institute.
"The concern here is, Why change the system when it's working?"
Back to basics
If Bush's proposed budget had a motto, it would be "back to basics." Every agency reviewed its projects, then gave top priority to the ones that serve its "core mission," said Catherine Arnold, spokeswoman for the state Department of Juvenile Justice.
For juvenile justice, that meant public safety. The best way to keep the public safe, the department decided, was to put more dollars toward locking up juvenile offenders.
"These are the youths who have broken the law, harmed an individual, broken into your house and made you feel unsafe in your world," Arnold said.
Bush proposed an additional $2.3-million to open:
-- A 50-bed facility in Okeechobee County for young sex offenders
-- A 50-bed facility in St. Johns County offering specialized mental health treatment
-- A 15-bed secure detention center in Monroe County
The state built all three facilities a couple of years ago but has never used them, Arnold said. The dollars to operate them were diverted to other security measures after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, she said.
The governor's budget also includes $5.6-million to repair juvenile detention centers, some of them decades old. Another $1.9-million would raise the pay for the private companies that run the facilities, the first increase since 1992, Arnold said.
"We were asking for private companies to bid to do the work, and they weren't bidding because they knew they couldn't afford to have the contract," she said.
Then the department looked for places it could scale back.
Bush proposes saving $4-million by eliminating psychological assessments for juveniles accused of misdemeanors. Those facing felonies would still be evaluated.
Eliminating electronic monitoring devices for juveniles on home detention would save $3-million more. Arnold said the devices have outlived their usefulness, because the state cut the funding several years ago for the employees who would respond if the kids left home.
"Why are we continuing to place equipment when we cannot effectively respond?" she asked.
And in one of its most controversial moves, the state once again suggested the counties pick up the $73.3-million tab for pretrial detention costs and misdemeanor probation costs. Pasco County's share of that burden would be about $1.9-million.
But those cuts still weren't enough to balance the budget, Arnold said. The decision became which programs to cut.
Pay now or pay later
In case anyone doubts the need for the New Port Richey Marine Institute and its sister programs across the state, regional director Patterson points to the statistics.
On average, teens who enter the institute have committed 10 offenses and missed 56 days of school in the past year. Once they finish the six- to nine-month program, 70 percent of the graduates stay out of trouble, Patterson said.
The marine institutes provide schooling, discipline, counseling and seamanship skills for more than 3,000 delinquent teens a year.
"If it weren't for these day treatment programs, I know for a fact that more than 70 percent of these kids would not be in school," Patterson said. "They'd be on the streets, maybe doing nothing more than a life of crime because there's nothing else to do."
But state officials think they can accomplish the same results at a fraction of the cost.
Bush proposes eliminating the $14.5-million programs at the marine institutes in New Port Richey and 25 other Florida communities. Instead, Bush would put $5-million toward hiring 122 additional juvenile probation officers.
State statistics show probation can be just as effective as day treatment programs, Arnold said. Within a year of leaving the program, 30 percent of the marine institutes' students are arrested and convicted of a crime, compared to 29 percent of the juveniles on probation after they leave prison.
The new probation officers would provide "intensive supervision" for certain offenders, seeing those teens up to five times a week and visiting with the parents once a week, Arnold said.
But Patterson says probation is a poor substitute for the attention students receive at the marine institutes.
"We provide more than just education," he said. "We provide a lot of family counseling, individualized counseling; we establish a uniform standard of behavior and appearance; we provide gang intervention, substance abuse counseling and vocational programming. Basically we provide the supervision and safety for the community."
Funding for the runaway shelters is more of a moving target. State dollars for CINS/FINS -- Children in Need of Services/Families in Need of Services -- would plummet from $28-million to $1.6-million under Bush's proposed budget.
The money pays for shelters and counseling programs for truant teens who may be "out of control," but are not accused of criminal activity. Youth and Family Alternatives Inc. uses some of those dollars to run the RAP House runaway shelter in New Port Richey, the New Beginnings Shelter in Brooksville and programs in five other counties.
State officials say the cut isn't as bad as it sounds, because millions of federal dollars for such programs remain untapped. Last year, Florida was eligible for about $4-million in federal assistance but collected only $700,000, Arnold said.
Next year, the state could be eligible for up to $10.4-million in federal money, she said.
George Magrill, president and CEO of Youth and Family Alternatives, Inc., isn't counting on those dollars. There's no guarantee that Congress, faced with a possible war and President Bush's ambitious domestic agenda, will allocate the money next year, Magrill said.
And even if the money is available, the red tape makes it difficult to apply for, and only some of the shelter's expenses would qualify, Magrill said.
Without any assistance, he fears the services for runaways will fold.
"That's not a Chicken Little statement," Magrill said. "Some communities may be in a position to pick up these services, but most counties are not going to have the money to do that.
"The sad thing is, we've been building these services over the last 20 years," he said. "We're nationally recognized has having one of the best services in the country, and in one fell swoop, it could be gone."
The PACE Center in New Port Richey faces the same fate under Bush's proposed budget. The program would be eliminated, and nothing would be offered in its place.
PACE ranked low on the Department of Juvenile Justice's list of programs that promote public safety, Arnold said. State officials see it primarily as an education program, she said.
Danielle Taylor-Fagan, the executive director of the PACE Center in New Port Richey, disagreed.
"The girls we see here are most often the ones at-risk," she said. "If a girl is not in school, she's generally using substances, hanging out with older boys, hanging out on the streets or shoplifting. One piece of our mission is truancy and dropout prevention.
"At the most basic level it doesn't make any sense, that you would take a program that is doing so much good for so many girls and eliminate it from the budget," Taylor-Fagan added.
While PACE may have preventive value, Arnold said, the money in tight budget times must go to the programs for teens who have already committed crimes.
"One person around here kind of equated it to, Do you brush your teeth or wait to have the cavities filled?" Arnold said. "These are tough decisions."
-- Bridget Hall Grumet covers social services in Pasco County. She can be reached at (352) 521-5757, ext. 23, or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6108, then 23. Her e-mail address is email@example.com .
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111