Debate Begins on Critical Children’s Issues

Published Tuesday, March 03, 2015

With the stormy issue of health care casting a huge cloud of uncertainty over the 2015 Florida Legislative session, advocates are keeping a close eye on this and other key policy issues sure to impact children and families around the state.

“There’s a perfect storm brewing as it relates to health care that’s going to overshadow everything else in the budget, said Sen. Rene Garcia (R-38), chair of the Health and Human Services Appropriations Committee.

Sen. Garcia, co-hosts Ileana Varela and Charles Auslander, on the set. Garcia noted that the Florida legislature, which opened its session March 3, has been very reluctant to expand Medicaid. “Yet when it comes to taking care of our families, taking care of our children, especially when Florida taxpayers' money is in Washington waiting to come into the state, how dare we play the political game of saying 'no' we just don't want to accept this money. Now’s the time for Republicans and Democrats to work together to make sure we access the $50 billion dollars that are waiting to come into the state of Florida,” the senator said.

“There’s much at stake this session. Are children and families going to be at the top of the list? It’s our responsibility to see that they are,” said Diana Ragbeer, director of Public Policy and Community Engagement at The Children’s Trust

Sen. Garcia and Ragbeer recently joined other guests on The Children’s Trust “Our Children” television show, filmed in the Metro-Dade government television studios. The half-hour show, which airs March 7, explores policy issues, legislation and funding for children’s health, early childhood education and the state’s embattled child welfare system.

Garcia and Ragbeer also served together as panelists along with Rep. David Richardson (D-113) at "Tallahassee Preview: What’s at Stake?" a community forum hosted by the Good Government Initiative at the University of Miami on Feb. 24.

Both “Our Children” and the forum explored critical issues that legislators must wrestle with during the 60-day session in the capital this spring.  

Charles Auslander, president and CEO of The Children’s Trust, and “Our Children” co-host Ileana Varela, former broadcast journalist, posed questions to Sen. Garcia and other talk show guests.

“The 5-year waiting period for legal immigrant children who want to apply for low-cost health insurance through KidCare still exists in Florida, though 29 other states have eliminated the ban. What’s the latest on this so far this session?” Auslander asked.

"This is a battle we've been fighting for the past five years. The ultimate goal is to cover children that were not previously able to get any health insurance because of federal policy. The feds have backed away from the ban, and now it's incumbent on the states to follow suit. This money is going to go a long way to cover a lot of children in our state,” Garcia replied. He added that a committee vote the previous week had unanimously agreed to fund the program and that he remained optimistic it would eventually pass both houses.

Ragbeer pointed out that originally some opponents said it would cost $500 million to fund the thousands of children who would be affected, but that figure had been readjusted to $4.8 million.

“There’s no reason not to fund this. These are children of green card holders, parents who came here legally, who bought the house, who work, who pay taxes, whose children go to school with ours. There's no reason that these children, who are going to get health insurance anyway, have to wait for five years,” she added.

Guests on “Our Children” tackled issues relating to the child welfare system, much in the public eye in past years and most recently because of the highly profiled case of the Tampa father with a history of mental illness who threw his 5-year-old daughter off a bridge in Tampa. Calls to the child welfare area hotline alerting of potential danger were ignored.

“We see often that, not just the mental health issues, but domestic violence, drug addiction are typically factors that are co-occurring in the cases we see and that can affect the parent to provide the necessary care for their children. It’s really important that we look at the whole issue, at the family functioning and how that may affect the caretaker’s ability to care for the child. You have to take a holistic view, a family view, that’s much broader than that one incident called into the hotline,” said Jackie Gonzalez, CEO of Our Kids of Miami-Dade/Monroe.

Sen. Garcia echoed the call for a comprehensive approach to remedying the problem, and applauded the fact that the Senate president has called for a complete review of mental health funding.

“For a lot of children coming into the system, the basic cause of these issues is either mental health or a substance abuse (in their families) coupled with domestic violence. We need to start taking a holistic approach at how we comprehensively fix the system.”

On another issue relating to the child welfare system, “Our Children” guests agreed that funding allocated last year to hire hundreds of additional child protective investigators to remove children from potentially abusive families had an unintended effect.

“One of the by-products is that we’ve had more than 60-percent increase in the number of kids coming into care – that means we’re caring for an additional thousand or so children every single day. That has put stress on the system, not only on the case managers who are carrying a lot more cases; the judiciary has doubled its case load, the guardian ad litem, the lawyers handling the cases – the entire system has been overwhelmed by the increase in volume,” said Gonzalez of Our Kids.

“We don’t want to see so many children in custody, but the fact that we are getting them in custody and out of harm’s way – that’s our number one role. But agencies like Our Kids are now overwhelmed with the influx of kids. Now what we have to make sure that we fund the system properly so those kids can have a permanent home with a loving family. I don’t want to see a child go back to a home where they’re abusive or where there’s drug usage and so forth. It’s incumbent on the legislature, together with advocates, to find new resources and funding streams to make sure we are able to put these children in a safe environment."

When asked at the community forum for tips on how to influence lawmakers and effect political change in Tallahassee, panelists all agreed that citizens should seek out and develop relationships with legislators in the off-season when the pace is not so frenetic as during session.

“Still, your voices need to be heard – they want to listen, to hear from you. And never give up – only about 10 percent of bills get passed. You have to be persistent,” said Ragbeer, a long-time advocate for children and families. 

By Michael R. Malone, The Children's Trust