With much chest thumping, Florida governor Rick Scott last week signed a law clipping auto-tag fees by about $25 per vehicle in the state. He used the opportunity to blast former governor Charlie Crist for raising those fees five years ago.
What Scott cynically failed to mention during the bill-signing charade was that all the top Republicans standing at his side had also supported the auto-tag hikes. It was the depth of the recession, and the state desperately needed revenue.
Scott himself is desperate to appear gubernatorial because Crist, running as a Democrat, will likely be his opponent in the November election. The auto-tag fee cut was the centerpiece of a tax-relief agenda being pushed by the governor, who trails Crist in the early polls.
Two of the GOP lawmakers who were crowing about this grand windfall for motor vehicle owners have an infinitely more important job in the days ahead. House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz have a chance to do something truly crucial and good.
They can shape a law that saves actual lives — the lives of endangered children.
Bills that would strengthen Florida’s child welfare laws are winding through both houses of the Legislature following publication of The Miami Herald’s shocking investigative series, Innocents Lost.
The newspaper documented the deaths of at least 477 children whose parents or caregivers had a history with the state’s Department of Children and Families. During the six-year period studied by reporters, DCF consistently under-reported the number of victims in its files who died because of violence or negligence by parents and caregivers.
In 2008, for example, the state said the death toll was 79. Using DCF’s own records, Herald reporters found 103 fatal cases that year.
Then, in 2009, the state reported that 69 children whose families had prior contact with DCF had died. Reporters counted 107.
The uncounted die just as wretchedly — and as unnecessarily — as the counted.
One of the most awful, notorious cases involved Nubia Barahona, a 10-year-old Miami girl who’d been tortured and starved by her adoptive parents. Soaked in poisonous chemicals, her decomposing body was found inside a black garbage bag on a pest-control truck.
Three years after the murder, the DCF still hasn’t sent her case to the Florida Child Abuse Death Review Committee. Incredibly, Nubia’s death remains officially uncounted.
The child-welfare system has been overwhelmed and broken for a long time, but that hasn’t stopped lawmakers from hacking millions in DCF funding. But this year Florida has accumulated an extra $1.3 billion in revenues, so there’s no excuse not to take action to stop the killings.
Scott has proposed $40 million to hire more DCF investigators and improve their training. That’s a start, but drug-treatment and counseling programs are also needed for those who’ve been allowed to keep custody of their children while under supervision.
The sad truth is that there aren’t enough good foster homes to let the state move all the kids now living with reckless parents in high-risk situations. In recent years the DCF has bent over backwards to hold dysfunctional families intact, too often with lethal consequences.
In 83 cases found by the Herald, a little boy or girl died after one or more parents had signed a so-called “safety plan” pledging to take better care of the child. The Senate version of the reform bill aims to make these safety plans more than just a piece of paper.
The measure would also require prompt and complete reporting of certain child deaths, and offer tuition-aid incentives for social workers who want to become child-abuse investigators.
Still, the Senate bill provides only $31 million in extra funding for child protection. The House version calls for $44.5 million.
“It’s tragic where Florida finds itself,” said House Speaker Weatherford last week.
He and Senate President Gaetz have the clout — and a moral obligation — to make other lawmakers understand the profound urgency of DCF reform. Children who are known to be in danger are dying anyway, and the state can’t even properly count how many.
With $1.3 billion in unanticipated revenue lying around, the governor and Legislature can afford to invest more than a drop in the bucket to help Florida’s most helpless children.
Lowering auto-tag fees by 25 bucks might be cause for giddy backslapping in Tallahassee, but saving even one child from a tortuous death would be a more noble accomplishment.
And one you can’t put a price on.
(Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for The Miami Herald. Readers may write to him at: 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132.)
Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr