A Children's Cabinet

Published: Sunday, April 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, April 1, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

In his State of the State address in February, Gov. Charlie Crist spoke of the need for a Children's Cabinet: "We must raise the profile of all children's issues, from education to health," he said. "Our children need a voice. They need to be at the table because soon it will be their table. That is why I will support the creation of a Children's Cabinet to coordinate state services and oversee child welfare issues."

The idea grew out of the Florida Children's Summit, held last fall in Orlando. There, about 1,000 community leaders, lawmakers and policymakers met to develop a "children's action agenda for 2007-2008." The agenda's issues "are intended to improve the quality for all Floridians by addressing substantial issues that will enable all children to grow and develop to their fullest potential."

The flagship issue from the conference was the Children's Cabinet, which would maximize the limited state dollars available for children's services, require coordination by state agencies, and ensure state agencies address all components of caring for children.

There are literally millions of reasons to support the concept. First, there is the broad umbrella of education covering 2.6 million children in Florida's public schools. There are 50,000 children in foster care at the Department of Children & Families.

About 100,000 children a year move through Florida's juvenile-justice system each year. And the state has about 11,000 children locked up - the third-largest population of children held in custody in the nation.

Another 121,000 were the victims of abuse and neglect in Florida - reasons enough for a Children's Cabinet.

The cabinet would be composed of 15 members, including the governor, the directors and secretaries of nine state agencies, and five members who would be appointed by the governor as representatives of children and youth-advocacy organizations.

The bill (HB509), sponsored by Rep. Loranne Ausley, D-Tallahassee, would require the cabinet to come up with a strategic plan by the end of this year. The companion bill in the Senate (SB564) is being sponsored by Sen. Nan Rich, D-Sunrise.

Last week, the Healthy Families Committee voted unanimously to approve the bill. The concept has already been adopted in 16 states. An analysis by House committee staffers found that those cabinets are set up in various ways ranging from single-purpose, short-term initiatives to comprehensive efforts set up by state law.

Children couldn't have a better advocate than Ausley, 43. An attorney, Ausley was elected to the House in 2000. More than half the bills she has sponsored in this year's session deal with children. This month, she was given the Girls and Boys Town of North Florida Spirit of Youth Award.

"It's pretty simple," says Ausley. "What we do for the youngest says a lot about what we say about society."

The creation of a Children's Cabinet should be a no-brainer for Florida's lawmakers. Clearly the numerous agencies that address children's issues and provide them services have monumental tasks. Any sort of collaboration, reduction in duplication, enhanced sharing of best practices and simply developing of more cohesive policies regarding children should be enthusiastically embraced.

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