In an outdoor press conference on Fort Lauderdale's Sistrunk Boulevard, in front of a large Christmas tree, State Rep. Perry Thurston urged Gov. Rick Scott to provide sufficient funding for the Florida Department of Children and Families.
After the fatal abuse of at least 40 children in sketchy homes supposedly under state supervision this year, there are a billion reasons to expect a better record from DCF in 2014. That is, if short funding is the only problem at the state agency, which is by no means clear.
State revenue forecasters are expecting a billion-dollar budget surplus for this next fiscal year. That could eliminate the purely financial reasons for further budget cuts at DCF but it wouldn't touch the small-government ideology and DCF failures of execution that many say are even worse threats to vulnerable children.
The deaths of all those kids during DCF's annus horribilis was the heart-wrenching thing. But the true wake-up call may have been in a report commissioned by DCF itself from Casey Family Programs, the well regarded non-profit analyst of child-protection programs. It found a system-wide cluelessness in DCF about protecting children in dangerous households.
That implicates mission and training nearly as much as funding. In a scorching letter to Gov. Rick Scott, Rep. Perry Thurston (D-Fort Lauderdale) demanded "full funding" for DCF after years of budget cuts and layoffs. Thurston focused his message on the money but he told reporters other factors are at work, such as hastening the return of abused children to possibly dangerous caretakers in the name of "family reunification."
"We think that the head of the agency has to set a tone and a policy and the policy does need to be about protecting children more so than quickly asking for reunification," Thurston said in Fort Lauderdale. "We want to make sure the Governor understands the agency that is most critical for the most vulnerable children needs to be fully funded."
Thurston, the term-limited House Democratic leader, is now a candidate for Florida attorney general.
Scott has already announced a desire to return about half of the projected billion-dollar surplus to Floridians in tax cuts and reduced fees. His spokesman says he will also protect DCF funding.
"We are prioritizing spending on critical services as we craft the budget, and vital child protective services will not be reduced," wrote deputy press secretary John Tupps in an email.
But other legislative advocates for child protection want to be shown the money.
"All right, we have a billon-dollar surplus," said State Sen. Eleanor Sobel (D-Hollywood). "What are we going to do with it?"
Sobel is the chairwoman of one DCF oversight committee, vice chair of another and a member of a third committee that influences the agency budget. She says spending money on child protection is an investment more than an expense.
"If we put dollars up in mental health and substance abuse and domestic abuse [programs] that would save dollars for the taxpayers," she said.
In its budget request for 2014-15, the agency has proposed cutting millions of dollars and dozens of jobs from its domestic violence, child safety and Healthy Families programs.
Two Democratic colleagues, Reps. Elaine Schwartz of Hollywood and Barbara Watson of Miami Gardens, joined Thurston at his Christmas-tree news conference. Each carried a wrapped Christmas present for one of the DCF children who died this year.
Of Tamiyah Audain, a profoundly disabled girl who died of malnutrition, Schwartz said, "The bureaucracy killed this young girl."
Watson's case was Michael McMullen, who had been beaten, drugged and confined to an animal cage before he was smothered in a blanket. "Welfare workers were the ones who put Michael in this horrible condition," she said.
Thurston memorialized Ezra Raphael, beaten to death by the boyfriend of his prostitute mother, whom DCF had already deemed unfit. "Ezra's case closed out in 20 days," he said. "That boy is dead."
Revenue is picking up in the state's recovering economy and hopes are running high for DCF problem solving with all the new money. But some of the old problems remain and the conflict may be the agency's issue for the year.