What’s a kid worth to you? Tell our state’s leaders by Scott Maxwell

Orlandosentinel.com  July 15, 2009

Sunday’s paper contained stories that should’ve left any taxpayer — no, make that anyone with a heart — shaken.

Thanks to some in-depth reporting by Sentinel reporter Rene Stutzman, we learned that more than 70 of the state’s child-welfare workers have been caught falsifying records. The results? One child wound up living with an uncle awaiting trial on rape charges. Four foster kids were found in a home with no running water. And the state simply lost track of at least six children altogether — sometimes for months. And those were just the lies that were caught.

These workers have no business looking after children. They deserve scorn, not jobs.

But while we’re pointing fingers, let’s save one for ourselves. Because this, my fellow Floridians, is also what you asked for: government on the cheap.

Florida ranks near the bottom third of the United States when it comes to child-welfare spending. Per child, we spend less than 50 cents for every dollar the top-ranked states spend, according to the most recent statistics from the national advocacy group Every Child Matters. And the starting salary for caseworkers in this state is woefully low. (More on that in a moment.)

If we’re honest, we all know that when you cut costs and corners while protecting neglected children, lives are at risk.

Can you live with that?

Seven years ago, championing children was all the political rage. It was disclosed that a 5-year-old foster child, Rilya Wilson, had been missing for 15 months without her caseworkers even knowing. She has never been found. The public was outraged. And the politicians responded with zeal. They promised reform, including one of Jeb Bush’s favorites: privatization to take the matter away from government’s direct control. Flash forward to today when more than half of the recently documented lies and falsifications came from contracted workers.

On the plus side, lawmakers also responded to Rilya’s case by beefing up reporting and disclosure requirements. That was needed — and allows us to now spot problems more quickly. But for the most part, lawmakers spoke louder with their mouths at press conferences than they did with their pens during budget sessions.

The results of our under-funded children are obvious. We have the third-highest number of uninsured children, the third-highest number of kids in juvenile lockups and the tenth most child-abuse fatalities.

Not everything is quite so dire. We rank as high as middle-of-the-pack for things like children living in poverty. But overall, Florida’s low rankings are about what you’d expect from its spending. Not everything can be fixed with money. But when we have workers handling the cases of 50 children — when the recommended maximum is 15 — it’s obvious we’re understaffed.

So let’s get back to the caseworkers. The average starting salary is about $31,000. Think about that for a moment. Whenever a politician is asked about some quarter-million-dollar salary of a government or nonprofit CEO, we usually hear: “Well, we have to pay people what they’re worth.”

So is that what our abandoned children are worth? Thirty-one grand a year? For someone with a college degree? Many of whom sleep with beepers? For that kind of money, you get two sets of applicants: 1) Those who probably couldn’t make much more elsewhere; and 2) Those who view child welfare as a calling — and are willing to work long hours in a gritty job in which their primary reward comes from knowing they helped make a difference.

I truly believe there are more of the latter and that the gut-wrenching tales disclosed Sunday are the exception rather than the rule. But the fact is that many politicians don’t spend more money on children because they don’t have to. You don’t force them.

This newspaper and my in-box are continually filled with letters from citizens demanding lower taxes. They vastly outnumber the letters that demand better care for our children. The politicians see that. And they respond. And keep in mind: We’re not talking about lazy miscreants asking for a government handout. We are talking about children — many of whom have been abandoned, neglected and suffered tragedies. Despite their traumatic lives, many remain optimistic that they will find new homes. All we have to do is keep them safe until then.

If your God doesn’t tell you that’s your responsibility, your conscience must.

This isn’t necessarily about raising taxes. There are plenty of ways for the state to collect more money — to pay caseworkers more and bring child-welfare spending up to at least the national average. Legislators could close the loopholes that exempt special interests from certain taxes. They could actually enforce collection laws already on the books. And they could simply re-direct more of the existing money to help the state’s most vulnerable residents. But they won’t.

Not unless you demand it.

Gov. Charlie Crist can be reached at 850-488-7146. And the legislative switchboard is 850-488-4371. Call them. Demand it.

Scott Maxwell can be reached at smaxwell@orlandosentinel.com. Copyright © 2009, Orlando Sentinel

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Author: fundeducationnow

Fund Education Now.org is permanent grass roots, non-partisan group created by parents to inspire and empower voters to advocate on behalf of Florida's children. We believe that Florida's public education crisis is about more than money. Parents, long silent on this subject, must now stand up and lead the discussion and clearly articulate what we, the end-users of public education, want and expect for our kids and our state.

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