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A Times Editorial

Continue Chiles' work for children

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 17, 1998

On Wednesday, the state and the nation said farewell to Gov. Lawton Chiles, amid laughter and tears evoked by eulogies delivered by public figures and old friends. Though Chiles' body is now laid to rest, his most important legacy -- an enduring commitment to the health and safety of Florida's children -- lives on.

Look around. You can see it everywhere.

It's in the face of every poor child who has health care, as Chiles' chief of staff Linda Shelley put it eloquently Saturday. Before Chiles started the Healthy Start program in 1992, Florida's record on infant mortality was worse than that of some African countries, as Chiles himself used to say. Six years later, infant mortality is down 26 percent -- the biggest drop in the nation. Chiles' initiative has, quite literally, made life possible for hundreds of Florida children.

So has his other "healthy" passion: Healthy Kids, which provided health insurance to some 60,000 school-aged children and their siblings. In the most ambitious expansion in three decades, Chiles signed a law last May broadening Healthy Kids and related programs, making a quarter of a million more children eligible for coverage.

It's in the faces of foster children who have permanent families, abused children who have safer homes, poor children who have day care. Last year, Chiles stood at Tampa's Al Lopez Park and spoke of another passion: finding permanent and loving families for the nearly 1,700 "special-needs" kids now languishing in Florida's foster-case system. Then he did what he had done for years: prevailed on the Legislature to set aside subsidies to make more adoptions possible.

To keep children from coming into the system in the first place, Chiles consistently pushed for family-preservation services and improvements to the state's child-protection system. In recent years, he asked for -- and got -- better training for child-protection workers and 200 more abuse investigators for the front lines. Under his leadership, a successful child-abuse prevention/parent-mentoring program called Healthy Families went statewide.

As Florida's welfare-to-work efforts took hold, Chiles also fought hard so that participants in the Work and Gain Economic Self-Sufficiency program, or WAGES, as well as the working poor, would have child care for their children. Chiles knew that without subsidized child care, work is an empty promise for many families.

This listing only scratches the surface of the ways in which Lawton Chiles made life better for Florida's children and their families. Still, Chiles would be the first to agree that his greatest work remains unfinished. Gov.-elect Jeb Bush, state lawmakers and communities can best honor the memory of Chiles by carrying on the work he held most dear.

How can they do that? Among other things, by zeroing in on the impoverished pockets within which our infants continue to die at extraordinarily high rates. In Florida, as elsewhere, minority infants perish at twice the rate of white children. The Lawton and Rhea Chiles Center for Healthy Mothers and Babies at the University of South Florida in Tampa plans to target its efforts in those areas, and lawmakers should, too.

By finding a way to get health care to the remaining 500,000 Florida children recent gains have left uninsured.

By finding families for the more than half of all foster kids who, despite being eligible for adoption, were passed over last year.

By funding the child protection system as if children's lives depended on it. Last year, 62 children died from abuse, a dramatic increase over previous years.

By making sure that subsidized child care is accessible and of high quality.

Lawton Chiles is gone. Now it is up to the rest of us to pick up where Florida's favorite son left off.

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