The State of Children in Florida 2011

The State of Children in Florida 2011

If the New Year’s resolution for Florida was to increase the number businesses and families moving to the state by attracting national news coverage using any means possible, we as a state have put in a large amount of effort with very little results to show for it. It is well known that the news media as a whole looks at two criteria when examining what stories are worthy of national coverage: If it bashes ‘the establishment’ and if it has the potential to tug at the heart-strings of Americans everywhere. We seemed to have understood these qualities well enough that just in the category of stories dealing with children we have already had five nationally covered incidences. For instance, no one could ignore the pull of the Casey Anthony trial debacle—during the week of July 4 -10, 2011 17% of national news coverage was spent on the case, which was the same amount that was spent discussing the national debt .

However, the first story dealing with children from Florida to garner national media attention this year wasn’t the Casey Anthony trial, but rather the Barahona case. The case, which hit headlines in mid-February, showed the rest of the United States that Florida was seriously lacking in its ability to protect the children living in the state. Four days after a call was made to the Florida abuse hotline claiming the Barahona family was abusing their adopted children , two of the children were found covered in acid in a truck parked on a major highway. One child was already dead from starvation, and the twin who was still alive was hospitalized for treatment before being moved to a new foster home, along with the two other adopted children in the family.

While the national news organizations covered this story, they didn’t cover the political decisions made in response to this event. Thus, the brilliance of the decisions made by the state legislature in response to this incident was lost in the obscureness of governmental bureaucracy. As an upstanding citizen of this fine state, I feel that it is my duty to highlight these decisions in hopes that they will influence people to move their families and businesses here.

Seeing the problems in the system that was being used by the Department of Children and Families , our esteemed legislature decided that the issues were serious enough to warrant discussion this past legislative session. With the current economic recession and the sky-high debt owed by the Florida government, the legislature came up with an ingenious, cost-saving solution: plausible deniability. The issues brought up through the news coverage didn’t focus on the state because of problems created by budgetary issues or corruption, rather the focus was on problems within the system itself. Without the money to reform the system completely, the legislature decided the next best option would be to include massive budget cuts to DCF in the state budget. By doing this, the department was forced to lay off 500 employees within a period of a few months, and gave the department the right to plausible deniability. No longer would the national media be able to claim that the system was flawed because no longer would problems in training or communication lead to the deaths of innocent children. Now, the issue was back in the hands of the public—the next time a child died in the system it would be because the citizens of the state of Florida refused to pay a few more dollars in taxes to help fully fund a program that would work.

The next story from Florida to garner national news coverage after the end of the Casey Anthony trial highlighted this new motto of plausible deniability when it comes to the protection of children. Earlier this summer, a 3 year old Jacksonville girl was moved from her grandmother’s custody after her mother’s death by a judge and given to her “legal” father , a sex offender living in Georgia with his three other daughters. Obviously, it made sense to give custody to the man despite his previous record due to the fact that Georgia allowed him to continue to have custody of his first three daughters. If there are any issues seen later in this incident not only can the judge and DCF claim plausible deniability based off the initial assessment, but any incidences that occur from this point on are the responsibility of the state of Georgia rather than Florida.

Following this train of thought, the legislature passed a bill that would allow juvenile delinquents to be held in the same facilities that hold adult prisoners so that they could cut down on the costs of running the facilities. While the facilities would have restrictions on the how the prisoners will be treated and separated, any problems that occur on location would be the sole problem of the county they occur in rather than a reflection of the statewide system. Thus, the state has once again managed to maintain a level of plausible deniability that is unseen in any other governments around the country.
With a new motto of solving all problems through plausible deniability, the state of Florida has found a way to maximize the tax dollars paid by its citizens while maintaining all of the other important governmental duties like installing new laser signs along the interstate. It is a shame that ‘bad news sells’ otherwise I am sure these inspirational changes to Florida’s policies would attract national coverage—and the lack of results in regard to the state’s New Year’s resolution just goes to show that not ‘all publicity is good publicity’.

The Problem: Too Much Pressure

Out of 2,186 bills filed during the 2011 Florida Legislative Session, only 295 bills made it onto the Governor’s desk at the end of the 60 days. While critics of the current government would claim that this is because of the laziness shown by the legislators during session and the lack of realistic bills filed at the beginning of session, I realize the truth in these numbers. The problem is too much pressure is placed on our government officials. This was not an easy conclusion to come to, rather it took a large amount of research and even some soul searching to see past the dismal results of this past session to the epiphany that was hidden behind them. I am happy to report, however, that I have finally seen this epiphany and I am willing to explain it to the rest of my fellow Floridians.

The first cause for concern is the fact that a position as a State Representative or State Senator is only considered a part time job, therefore they are only paid around $30,000 plus $133 dollars every day they are in session for travel expenses. This means that unless the individual has a large amount of money already, they split their time between representing their constituents and a second job. It is no wonder that politicians favor reading bill analyses rather than actually reading the bills themselves; with constraints like a second job limiting their time, reading all 2,186 bills would be impossible. Even the fact that they don’t write their own bills make sense once you understand the time constraints, I mean along with actually learning all of the legal jargon they would have to completely understand the issue they are undertaking rather than just looking to experts to suggest the best summary of the idea they want to get across in the bill.

Next is the fact that not only do they have to take off 60 days of their second job for session, they also have to deal with all of the committee meetings that occur in the months leading up to the start of session. In regards to the responsibilities of the committees, those individuals who are forced to serve on committees such as the Senate Child, Families, & Elder Affairs Committee have to face more pressure due to the major issues they are supposed to tackle compared to those on obscure committees like the Senate Regulated Industries Committee. This was proven this session when the Senate President Mike Haridopolos asked all 39 Senators to rank their “top ten” committees, and that he would try to place them based off of their responses. In the letter that he sent out announcing the committees, he wrote “Because I am attempting to best respond to the will of the members, committees will range in size from 5 members to 23 members”. Two of the committees that had only five members were the Senate Child, Families, and Elder Affairs Committee and the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. Compared to the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee which had eleven members, the Senate Regulated Industries Committee which had twelve members, and the Senate Communications, Energy, and Public Utilities Committee which had fourteen members, these committees seem small. I am not inclined to believe that those Senators chose which committees they based the stimulating topics that would be discussed, or even that the “selections are a reflection of what your constituents are interested in and as well as what each of you individually can bring in the way of insight, experience and in many cases real world expertise” as Senate President Haridopolos explained in his letter. These committees were ranked as such based off the amount of pressure that would be put on them to come up with real world solutions. Laws on septic tank regulations or the deregulation of interior design aren’t life changing to most Floridians, and as such a poor decision on one of these issues wouldn’t end up on the front page of the local newspaper in the politician’s constituent base. However, a law on education would put you in the spotlight around the state, and could end up costing the politician the title they so rightfully earned through their actions during their campaign.

In a national report that looked at political corruption by state during the years 1998-2007, Florida ranked first in the number of federally convicted public officials with over 800 individuals, beating the number two state (New York) by over 100. I would caution when looking at this number that it only looked at convicted public officials, which could very well mean that Florida just has the highest number of politicians who aren’t smart enough not to get convicted. Whatever the case this statistic just goes to show that when it comes to the amount of pressure put on politicians, it is too much for many of them to handle.

In closing, I felt it would only fair to include the responses made to an Orlando Sentinel reported by some of the politicians currently in office here in the great state of Florida about corruption in the government to show how the pressure of holding a political office affects even the brightest of minds:
State Senator Gary Siplin, D-Orlando (was summarized making this argument): “If we criminalize more political misdeeds, it might crowd the prisons”.
State Representative Chris Smith, D-Ft. Lauderdale: “You can’t legislate morality”.