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Five Questions for Gayle Harrell

April 13, 2014 - 6:00pm

Rep. Gayle Harrell is in the middle of two major debates about how to better protect vulnerable children. As chairwoman of the House Healthy Families Subcommittee, the Stuart Republican is helping shepherd bills to overhaul Florida's child-welfare system and to help children who are the victims of sex trafficking.

Harrell has represented her Treasure Coast district for a total of 12 years. First elected to the Florida House in 2000, she termed out in 2008 and ran for Congress that year, coming in second to U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney in a Republican primary. She was again elected to the Florida House in 2010 and re-elected in 2012. Last August, Harrell decided not to run for Congress a second time, and is up for re-election to her current post this year.

A health information technology consultant married to a physician, Harrell has long been involved in health care issues and is often an ally of physicians. She and her husband, Jim, have four children and eight grandchildren.

The News Service of Florida has five questions for Gayle Harrell:

Q: Talk about your background in childrens services before your election to the House.

HARRELL: Well, Ive been involved in childrens issues for many, many years. First of all, I was the mom of four kids, which gives you some insight and experience when you have four kids in seven years, and theyre very involved in all kinds of things, activities at school and everything you can imagine.

But I really got involved in many of the issues around abuse and neglect of kids back about 30 years ago. We had a situation on the Treasure Coast where a child was, unfortunately, killed, in a terrible abusive situation. And there was a group that got together, and Lavon Tilton -- who happened to be my tennis partner at the time -- was really the founder of Hibiscus Childrens Center. One day on the tennis court, she said, Gayle, I need you to come to my house. Were going to talk about what we can do about this. When shes about to serve and youre at the net, you say, Yes, maam. So a group of us got together, and she was certainly the impetus behind it.

And we started Hibiscus Childrens Center. First it started out as child-abuse prevention. And then we actually raised some money to keep the kids right there on the Treasure Coast. And we opened the shelter about a year and a half later. It took us awhile to raise the money -- we opened debt-free. And we started with 12 kids. We got certified by DCF -- back then it was (the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services). And we got certified for a shelter for 12 beds. Now we are in three counties. We have a shelter in Jensen Beach, which is still there; its been expanded to 36 beds. And we have a village in Vero, which is more of a cottage-based home, and we have eight cottages, and they are for teenagers, for children 12 and above. That is more family-style, as opposed to an emergency shelter.

And then we run various prevention programs. Over the years weve had a variety of prevention programs to get to the root causes of child abuse. And we do a lot of counseling, we do a lot of care for these children, and we make sure its a real therapeutic model, to help these kids move on and become successful.

Q: How has this background affected your legislative career?

HARRELL: Well, Ive always been involved in Hibiscus Childrens Center, and then I was also involved with -- way, way back in the '70s, started out with -- helping people succeed, which originally was Pioneer Occupation Center, and then it became Tri-County Rehab Center, Tri-County Tech -- a variety of things dealing with people with disabilities. So I had a lot of background in that area as well.

When I first came to the Legislature, I was involved mostly in health care, and always DCF or whatever the agency was, was under a health care committee. So I kind of gravitated to those kinds of committees. Having a health care background myself, that was where my interest was, and my expertise was in health care. So my avocation really was on the childrens side, but my professional side has been health care. They tend to fall into the same arena, in health and human services. So Ive sat on lots of committees over the many, many years, on the appropriations committees, on the health care committees, and the committees that also deal with children and families. So it was kind of a natural evolution.

Q: One of your major legislative initiatives this year is a continuum of services for victims of sex trafficking. One provision has been controversial -- the secure safe house to keep victims from returning to their pimps -- and thats raised some constitutional issues.

HARRELL: I think weve addressed them, but we want to make sure that we have a package that is going to pass and that will be signed into law and will start the process of really dealing with the human-trafficking issue and making sure we have a continuum of care that is going to meet the needs of this very special population.

The bill itself really addresses things across the spectrum. It starts out talking about task forces. We want to make sure every community has a task force out there to really identify girls who are involved in human trafficking. And that takes input from law enforcement, from the schools, from the child-neglect (and) child-abuse arena, DCF, and a variety of people who really have contact with kids, juvenile justice and we want to make sure the task force really looks at it holistically across the local community to identify these girls and put together a variety of services.

Were going to make sure, from the state perspective, that when we place a girl in shelter, when a girl becomes dependent and is placed in shelter, that they are in facilities and homes that really are prepared to deal with their multiple problems. So were putting in place a safe foster home model that will have certified foster homes that meet very specific criteria that are safe for the girls to be in, that have a public-records exemption as to their addresses, and that we also have the services there, the therapeutic services that these girls very much need. Were also going to have certified safe homes across the state. We dont know how many that will be yet, but we want to make sure the criteria are there, that these kids are safe, that there are security systems, that there are alarms, that there are lights and cameras and that we know whos coming and going out of these facilities.

But most importantly, theres the therapeutic aspect: that these girls have a full day of programming, that they get the education theyre so lacking and that they get the therapy they need, and that this is trauma-informed therapy that meets their specific needs.

The controversial part, of course, is the secure safe house. I feel that very much meets constitutional muster. We put a three-way test in that is used in terms of Baker Act-ing or using the Marchman Act. And we already place children in facilities such as this, using the criteria that are very specific. Weve put many, many safeguards in place with the judicial oversight. You have to have an independent fact-finder address whether the child needs these services, you have to have that independent fact-finder, the judge, have continuous review of that, and you also have to have clear and convincing evidence that she needs this.

So I believe what weve done in the bill meets the constitutional challenges. But we were getting a lot of questions, a lot of pushback on it. So (weve offered an amendment) in the Health and Human Services Committee that will address the issue of these very small number of kids who have such needs and who are putting themselves in such danger. And thats the key: they are putting themselves in such danger. They are a danger to themselves. So we are going to be taking a little different tactic, and want to make sure that when you use the current mechanism we have, which is called the Baker Act or the Marchman Act, that the facilities they will be treated in meet all the criteria and needs of these children. So we are essentially doing a safe therapeutic model that will be using existing constitutional mechanisms we have in place, such as the Baker Act and the Marchman Act.

Q: What do you think of the heated debate that the secure safe house pilot has sparked?

HARRELL: People are very passionate about this issue. I think they feel a real compunction to protect these girls. We have different ways we think are appropriate to do that. Im not comfortable with having kids run away, run away, run away, run away -- again and again and again -- and not do something about it. And they are running back to the street, they are going back to their pimps, because they are so trauma-bonded to these unscrupulous, unbelievably nasty people who are taking these children -- the average age that a child gets involved in child prostitution is 13, and according to the FBI, the average lifespan is 7 years. They are truly in great danger when we allow them to go back to the street and go back to prostitution, to being enslaved. This is modern-day slavery.

We have different opinions on how best to do that. But what we want to do at the end of the day is make sure that these kids are safe. Theres arguments on both sides on how you do that, but were going to find a way to do it, and make sure its constitutional, and make sure that these kids stay safe.

(You were meeting with a critic of the secure safe house pilot when we arrived. That seems to be your pattern when people have ideas contrary to whats in the bill -- they say you meet with them and incorporate their concerns.) Well, Im a problem-solver. I think when you have differences of opinion, you need to listen to them, you need to understand them and you need to try and accommodate to some degree. But you always want to accomplish your goal. And sometimes there are many ways to do that. You may not find the best way at first. You may have to change your ways a little bit. But the end goal is to get to where, in this case, youre going to keep the kid safe.

Q: The child-welfare reform bill is still being revised in the Senate. Is the House considering any more changes?

HARRELL: Well, in the House, we have been through our major committee. We passed it out of the Healthy Families Subcommittee (two weeks ago) and now we are talking with the Senate. They have come over to our position on many, many issues. We still have some outstanding issues, and Im constantly being brought more stuff and more things to put in the bill to make it even better. So we are still tweaking it.

But I think that as this moves forward, were getting closer to the Senate. There may be some bump issues that have to go to the speaker. And well be probably on the floor still amending it, because were still getting good ideas. And were talking to everybody who has good ideas, and were willing to look at all things.

But here again, at the end of the day, what we want to do is change the child-welfare system, make sure that we have appropriate, trained people who are investigating child abuse and neglect, that they know what theyre doing, theyre well-trained, they have the appropriate education and the critical thinking skills to make good decisions. We also want to make sure that our case managers have skills.

But we also want to put money into it, to make sure that we have the services available. And the House has been very proactive in putting a significant amount of money in. Were putting over $44 million into this endeavor this year. Whether its directly to CBCs (community-based care agencies) for services, whether its for (child protective investigators), for sheriffs (who investigate child abuse), for a variety of things, were going to make sure we put some new money into this and really increase the emphasis on services.

(Many advocates are saying the success of the bill hinges on how much funding is attached to it.) You know, we just cant do it all in one sitting. As I say, you dont eat an apple in one gulp. You eat it a bite at a time. And were taking a mighty big bite. Forty-four million dollars isnt a small amount of money. And were starting down that pike. And I think as we see successes, as we see changes, we need to see how things work. And again, this is a work in progress. Youre not going to make major changes like this and not have maybe some unforeseen things happen down the road. So this is an ongoing process, that were changing the system. But were starting to do it.

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