Last week, I wrote a column about the shameful failures of the Florida DCF and questioned whether our state's mandate of “family preservation” – which was arguably reinforced by a flawed notion that it would reduce costs – should be reassessed. Around the same time, we ran a story on the state's effort to reduce the amount drivers paid to renew their automobile registration. Am I the only one who sees an amazing opportunity?
Florida reduced spending on DCF by $80 million between 2005 and 2013, even as state spending grew by $10 billion (that's with a B), though the state argues that that number reflects the entire DCF budget and that spending for services specific to child protection have risen (though quite modestly) in each budget year over that period. Governor Scott has said that he wants to spend an additional $40 million on DCF next year in order to hire 400 new child protective investigators, though his plan does not include any additional funding to protect and serve children once they are in the system.
In light of the Miami Herald investigative series Innocents Lost, an investigation of enormous scale, which chronicled 477 deaths that happened under DCF’s watch since 2008, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have promised to spend the money needed to fix the problem. However, any solution within the scope of the existing budget is likely to fall far short of what's needed. But what if we could find another source of money to install the sort of fix that would be deserving of those who we've failed – the most vulnerable members of our society?
In 2009, the Florida Legislature passed a pretty hefty increase on vehicle registration, essentially doubling the cost for most drivers. Heading into his November reelection campaign, Governor Scott called on the legislature to repeal that increase and both houses have passed bills to do so. With over 15 and a half million registered vehicles in Florida, the move will cost the state well over $300 million each year.
What if we proposed a referendum on November's ballot to keep the registration fees as they are for the next four years, in order to create about $1.3 billion in revenue to be dedicated exclusively to child protection services? DCF says that this year's funding for services specific to child services is just under $162 million. $1.3 billion could be used to increase their budget by a hefty 50 percent – an additional 81 million – for the next decade and a half.
There would be some caveats. The state would still have to commit to their proposed fixes this year and then freeze the budget, perhaps even index it to inflation, so that the “new money” is not watered down by cuts. But just think of all that could be done; more case workers, more investigators, more judges, more foster parents, more adoption specialists, etc.
I still think that the mission of family preservation needs to be reexamined, but nonetheless have to imagine that many of the disgraceful failures which resulted in so many unnecessary deaths, even after DCF became involved, would be reduced were the department blessed with such a significant increase in funding. Again, I understand that such a measure would be more complicated than I'm imagining, but if Tallahassee put as much effort into the issue as it has casino gambling, charter school expansion and other special interest boondoggles, I'm confident there are some folks who could get it done.
As for the voters, I'm also confident that we could find a healthy majority of Floridians who wouldn't sweat an extra $20-25 each year, knowing that it could save a young life incapable of fending for itself. I think this is a pro-life issue we can all get behind.
Come on Tallahassee. Show the people of Florida that it's not only those with the big checks and powerful lobbyists who rate radical reinvention on an accelerated time-frame, while giving them a chance to show that they're willing to pitch in, even during tough times, in order to help you get something important done. Together, we can make this happen and protect our most valuable natural resource – our young.
Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here to visit his column archive. Click here to go to his bio page. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook.
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