By Ralph De La Cruz
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
On Wednesday, Republican lawmakers finally accepted $3.4 million in federal money for a child abuse prevention program. Hallelujahs and Hosannas.
They had earlier rejected the money over the objections of their party leader, Gov. Rick Scott, because it was linked to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, often referred to with disdain by Republicans as “ObamaCare.” The state of Florida is not only resisting implementation of the new health care law — it is fighting the federal government in court over its constitutionality. State leaders say that, because they believe it is unconstitutional, they don’t want to take part in the program or take any money affiliated with it.
Caught in the middle of that ideological tussle was the $3.4 million grant to continue a program that sends trained professionals on home visits to families identified as being at risk of child abuse. But unlike other programs whose funding was rejected this year, this one was not only part of the new health care law, it was also linked to “Race to the Top,” an early-childhood learning program that could bring $100 million in federal education dollars to the state.
Scott wants to participate in Race to the Top, so on Wednesday, the Legislative Budget Commission went back on the earlier decision and voted to accept the money. Who would have ever thought it would be so hard or complicated to take $3.4 million that somebody wants to give you?
And even though they approved the funding, the vote was done with reluctance. The Orlando Sentinel reported that Rep. Denise Grimsley of Sebring, the commission chairman, said she did not want to accept the home-visiting grant because of the health care law and because it was “a case of ‘big government’ assuming responsibilities that should rest with families.”
A noble concept — but one that assumes all families are able to take on those responsibilities. Reality tells us that some families need a fair amount of help and guidance.
Child abuse is often the product of parents being undertrained and overwhelmed. It’s affected by factors as varied as unemployment, addiction and even the age of the mother. That is why the home-visits, part of the Healthy Families program, have been successful in New York and here in Florida: the visits offer information and alternatives to the overwhelmed and undertrained.
Regardless of its connection to Race to the Top, that kind of support would seem to be welcomed by families statewide — even in Grimsley’s district.
Grimsley represents Highlands and Glades Counties, as well as parts of Hendry County. One-third of Highlands’ families are single-parent families. Not bad, considering the state average is 35 percent. Almost half (45 percent) of the households in heavily-rural (pop. 10,798) Glades are single-parent. And Hendry has 36 percent single-parent.
In 2010, there were almost 1,250 reports of domestic violence in Highlands County, which has a population of just 200,000. Big enough, however, to have at least four rehab centers for addictions. There were 631 arrests for drugs in 2010 and another 243 for DUI. Highlands and state officials felt the need to develop a “County-Wide Multidisciplinary Protocol” for methamphetamines and methamphetamine labs.
So, there were folks in Highlands who were excited at the end of 2007 when the Healthy Families program was introduced there — thanks to the legislature’s decision to provide an extra $2.2 million to expand the program statewide.
Not quite four years later, after a wild ride through a series of unusual turns, state leaders have overcome ideology and personal opinions to take a chance on … re-commiting to child abuse prevention.