Weekly Roundup: All In The Family
Around the State
There's been plenty of talk in Florida lately about families.
One of the major issues in the governor's race has become which family members should be required to divulge their income tax returns. Gov. Rick Scott embarked on the "Caring for Florida's Families," offering one of the first substantive agendas in what has thus far largely been a contest to see who can sling the most mud.
Meanwhile, the Department of Children and Families showed off a new website that it hoped would highlight its efforts to turn the corner after several months of bad headlines -- only to see a reminder of the past once again enter the public eye. And the Florida State University family feud dragged on over who should be the institution's next president.
When he ran for office in 2010, Scott's rise to the Republican nomination was fueled in no small part by his support for an Arizona-style crackdown on illegal immigration -- legislation that critics in the Copper State called the "papers, please" law. The proposal never got traction in Florida, but Scott is once again asking to see someone's papers.
This time, he and his campaign are calling on former Gov. Charlie Crist to release his wife's tax returns. In response, Crist released more of his own tax returns, but not his wife's. And Scott's campaign pointed out that Crist had already divulged most of the records he released this week in his previous campaigns for office.
"Charlie releasing tax returns he has already released instead of making public the returns for him and his spouse is a joke," said Jackie Schutz, a spokesman for the Scott campaign. "What's he hiding? His desperation to distract is just making us more curious.”
Crist's campaign brushed the Scott attacks off as a personal affront to his spouse, Carole. Unlike the Scotts, the Crists don't file jointly. Kevin Cate, a spokesman for Crist's campaign, blasted Scott for raising the issue.
"He should immediately apologize," Cate said. "Spouses and children are off limits."
While his campaign pushed for more records from Crist, Scott himself was touring the state to call attention to his plans for the state's foster care and early learning programs.
Scott's plan -- which was released as he tries to soften his image and broaden his platform beyond economic issues -- calls for more support for foster and adoptive parents by establishing an ombudsman program and pushing for more support groups and counselors.
On early learning, Scott says the state should set up "a system of incentives and assessments" for preschool instructors and cut the waiting lists for preschool programs.
And the governor's plan would expand the number of state-backed "personal learning accounts," which provide up to $9,000 for parents to help pay for education services for children with disabilities.
Scott's tour came shortly after he signed a bill (SB 1666) meant to overhaul the state's child-welfare system in response to increased scrutiny caused by child deaths and media reports.
The new law creates rapid-response teams to conduct immediate investigations of child deaths, establishes the Florida Institute for Child Welfare to conduct policy research, and creates the position of assistant secretary for child welfare at the Department of Children and Families.
It will also use tuition waivers and loan-forgiveness programs to help child-protection staffers earn social-work degrees. The new law also aims to keep siblings together and medically fragile children in their homes and communities as much as possible.
AGENCY TAKES STEP FORWARD, HEARS BACK:
DCF also made other efforts to patch up its reputation after the Miami Herald's Innocents Lost series, published in March, which found that at least 477 children known to the department had died of abuse and neglect over a six-year period.
Interim Secretary Mike Carroll, who took the job in early May, rolled out a website this week that will track child deaths and make them public.
Within 72 hours of a death, the child’s name, age, date of death and a narrative of how he or she died will be posted at www.dcf.state.fl.us/childfatality. Users will be able to sort the data in multiple ways, such as determining the causes of local deaths. The department hopes communities will use the data to guide prevention efforts.
"It will be the pre-eminent website in the country in terms of the amount of information and the user-friendliness of that information for the general public around child deaths," Carroll said.
But the agency still couldn't seem to shake the past. Even as Carroll was touting the new database, one of the sponsors of the child-welfare bill Scott signed was calling for an independent investigation into whether the department has been open about some recent fatalities.
"Sweeping child deaths under the rug will only serve to perpetuate a culture of cover-up and corruption," warned state Sen. Eleanor Sobel, the Hollywood Democrat who chairs the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee, in a statement Tuesday. "Hiding the deaths should never be a solution."
Sobel, who hosted a town-hall meeting on last year's wave of media reports about child deaths, zeroed in on new Herald reports that DCF was less than forthcoming about some deaths in 2013.
Added into the mix was the release of a report by a Miami-Dade grand jury on reforms implemented by Florida's child welfare system after the gruesome death of Nubia Barahona, whose adoptive parents are awaiting trial for her 2011 death.
The report praised the Department of Children and Families for improvements to the state abuse hotline, the practices of child protective investigators and the information systems and databases used by department workers.
But the grand jury also excoriated DCF for its reporting of child deaths, noting, for instance, that the department in 2010 changed its definition of "neglect" in a way that made it apply to fewer children.
Carroll responded to the critics.
As for Sobel's statement, Carroll denied that a cover-up took place on child deaths, but said a regional manager hadn't followed DCF requirements that incident reports be entered into the department's system within one business day and failed to follow a directive to correct the matter for another two months. The manager was suspended for two days.
And DCF tried to emphasize the positive statements by the grand jury, which wrote that jurors "believe DCF and the Florida Legislature responded very well to many of the recommendations" from an earlier grand jury that looked into Barahona's death.
RACES, SPECIAL AND NOT:
Florida State University is another respected institution that's gotten a black eye from recent headlines -- those about its search for a president and what role influential Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, will play as the school moves forward.
A new consultant for the search -- the old one exited amid an uproar about how Thrasher's interest in the job was being handled -- said this week that the hunt for president won't be sidetracked again for any individual.
Alberto Pimentel, a managing partner from the California office of Storbeck/Pimentel & Associates, said during informal meetings with students and faculty that he won't repeat the recommendation of the prior consultant to have the search committee interview just Thrasher.
"There will be one process and one process only," Pimentel said. "We're not going to create a special process for some candidates and not for others. I think that you get in trouble when you do that."
At least one politician, however, did get a position through a special process, though one that was shared by all candidates. Curt Clawson, a Republican businessman, won a special election to fill the seat of disgraced former Congressman Trey Radel.
Clawson overwhelmingly won the race in the Republican-leaning Southwest Florida district, beating Cape Coral Democrat April Freeman and Marco Island Libertarian Ray Netherwood with 67 percent of the vote.
Radel, a Republican from Fort Myers, resigned in late January after being arrested on a cocaine-possession charge.
Republican Party of Florida Chairman Leslie Dougher congratulated Clawson for his "well-earned" victory.
"Congressman-elect Clawson will undoubtedly serve his district with distinction, bringing true conservative values to our nation’s capital," Dougher said in a release.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Gov. Rick Scott finished sifting through the 255 bills sent to him by the Legislature, 254 of which he signed. The lone bill to fall victim to Scott's pen this year was a measure (SB 392) that would have allowed the Florida Department of Transportation to raise highway speed limits by 5 mph, including going from 70 mph to 75 mph on some roads.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "I was meant to serve as a cautionary tale to other state workers, that if you want to speak up, try to do the right thing, and take action, here is what's going to happen to you." -- Former state worker Dianne Parcell, whom a jury this spring concluded that the state fired in retaliation for raising questions about nearly 100 cases where DEO had improperly reported overpayments to Floridians receiving unemployment benefits. The state later settled with Parcell for $250,000.