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State Leaders Urged To Make Early Childhood A Priority

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Wikimedia Commons
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

The Florida Children and Youth Cabinet voted Thursday to send a letter to state leaders, urging them to prioritize early-childhood education, intervention and other services for "the first 1,000 days" from pregnancy to age 3.

"These are the years of 85 percent of a child's brain growth, and are immensely important to childhood development," draft language said.

Cabinet Chairwoman Wansley Walters suggested adding the importance of having Gov. Rick Scott, Senate President Andy Gardiner and House Speaker Steve Crisafulli "understand that the first 1,000 days constitute a research-driven, evidence-based coalition of child-centric authorities across the state --- because otherwise they're probably not going to have any clue what we're talking about."

To longtime members of the cabinet --- established in 2007 --- the letter was a symbol of their hopes for a new relevancy.

"We got it done," said Tallahassee attorney Steve Uhlfelder, a cabinet member since 2009. "We didn't just listen --- we acted."

The letter will go to Scott, Gardiner, Crisafulli and the rest of the Florida Legislature --- after years of lobbying efforts about the merits of focusing on early childhood to prevent future crime, joblessness and dysfunction.

"I've been frustrated," David Lawrence, chairman of the Children's Movement of Florida, told cabinet members at their meeting in Tampa. "I would like this cabinet to stand for something. I'd like some focus here."

Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Chairwoman Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, noted the large number of issues presented to lawmakers.

"If we take a position that this is a priority --- and you are all very important people --- hopefully, it will be a priority and we will get legislation passed,'' Sobel said. "We just can't be talking heads here."

The Children and Youth Cabinet includes the leaders of all state agencies dealing with children, along with representatives of the Florida Supreme Court, the state House and Senate, the chief financial officer and the Guardian ad Litem program.

Last year, Scott asked Walters, a former secretary of the Department of Juvenile Justice and now a lobbyist with Ballard Partners, to continue as a member of the cabinet after stepping down as an agency head.

At Thursday's cabinet meeting, members also agreed to support a measure eliminating a five-year waiting period for the children of legal immigrants to obtain low-cost KidCare health coverage. The proposal is a perennial bill by Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations Chairman Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah. It passed the Senate overwhelmingly the last three years, but was heard and approved in just one House committee.

But while Walters and other cabinet members try to move forward with issues such as the early-childhood initiatives, they also have critics.

For instance, Roy Miller, president of the Children's Campaign, an advocacy group, pointed to building momentum to address a host of other issues such as mental health, substance abuse, sex trafficking, licensing and standards for after-school programs, the placement of children in foster care or group homes and reducing the number of children tried as adults.

"I'm hopeful that the Children's Cabinet, in addition to its early-childhood agenda, will weigh in timely on these policy issues," he said. "Further, significant improvements cannot be made without state funding, and that process starts with the priorities of executive branch agencies and the governor."

Former state Sen. Nan Rich, a Weston Democrat who helped sponsor the bill creating the cabinet, said the cabinet's biggest problem was a lack of independence.

"If you have agency heads that feel they have to do whatever the governor tells them to do, then the whole concept of this doesn't work," she said.

Rich added that she was saddened the panel had given up its earlier practice of calculating a children's budget --- the amount of money the state has to spend on children's services.

The cabinet hasn't calculated a children's budget since 2010, but is embarked on a year-long project to map the children's services that each agency provides with an eye toward streamlining them.