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Funding issues cloud aid for kids

Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Harry Lee Anstead says the local child welfare system has improved, but the state has far to go.

By COLLEEN JENKINS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 16, 2003


WILDWOOD -- Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Harry Lee Anstead traveled to Wildwood last week to laud child justice advocates for better protecting the abused and neglected children who travel through dependency courts in the 5th Judicial Circuit.

But a foreboding message for the state's court system underscored his praise.

The improved dependency court has made strides thanks to case managers and general masters who are keeping closer tabs on kids, Anstead said. Yet those positions could face cuts next year when a constitutional amendment -- known as Revision 7 -- kicks in, forcing a larger chunk of court funding to come from the state's already stretched coffers.

"It's a tough issue, but nevertheless we've got to have a court system to do all that you folks do for the children," he told a room full of judges and Department of Children and Families employees Friday. "I'll tell you what, I will go down with my dying breath fighting for it."

Anstead, casually seated with a boxed lunch, told 5th Circuit officials that children's issues were his passion. The chief justice was the youngest of six children raised by his single mother in a Jacksonville housing project.

In his close-knit neighborhood, people looked out for one another, he said.

"I still feel a twinge in my right ear from the neighbor lady when she caught me playing hooky from school," Anstead said.

He said that was the benefit of living in small communities like those found throughout the 5th Judicial Circuit, which is composed of Citrus, Hernando, Lake, Marion and Sumter counties. It's why the efforts to improve dependency courts' accountability and effectiveness have flourished in the five counties, he said.

These days, he said, the dependency courts are not simply a stop on the way to the adult court system.

"You build in this accountability so you're closely monitoring all the time what is happening to that child," he said before the meeting. "It's worked beyond our wildest dreams."

Advocates gave Anstead a taste of the progress they've made locally during the past three years. They've formulated a work group to identify which kids in foster care need court hearings to determine a permanent residence. No child is supposed to stay in foster care longer than one year, said David Silverstein, managing attorney for DCF in District 13, whose member counties are the same as the those of the judicial circuit.

Silverstein said people involved in dependency court are trying to keep cases moving forward, rather than swinging in the system's bureaucracy for months. That's a particular aim in situations where children are waiting to be placed with out-of-state relatives.

In Citrus County, a pilot program for a dependency drug court recently got under way. This intensive program, which mimics a similar program in Marion County, will try to help parents recover from substance abuse in order to keep custody of their children or return them home faster, said Veronica Tallent, a DCF foster care supervisor.

Also, Citrus court officials are developing "family case conferencing" to solve disruptive family problems before they get to court, Tallent said.

"It's the concept of the neighborhood raising the child," she said. "There's got to be better ways to help families."

Silverstein told the chief justice that many of the positive changes could be credited to case managers and general masters, who preside over dependency hearings in each county. But the attorney said local court officials worried that funding would fall short when changes come in July 2004.

Anstead said judges would have to fight actively for the $190-million they will need from the Legislature next year.

"Legislators don't always have a concept of what case managers do," he said. "By God, it's all political, and we have got to let our voices be heard."

After the meeting at the DCF offices in Wildwood, Anstead headed to a Tampa church to promote children's issues with Gov. Jeb Bush.

Before parting, he said every child, no matter what race or economic status, should be viewed as a treasure in Florida. He thanked the group for furthering that vision.

"You all are like the troops out there on the front line, carrying the rest of us on your shoulders," he said. "But more importantly, you're carrying the children of this state around on your shoulders by what you do."

-- Colleen Jenkins can be reached at 860-7303 or cjenkins@sptimes.com.

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