TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Members of the Florida Children and Youth Cabinet on Tuesday said they wanted to re-establish the cabinet as a "bully pulpit" for children, with better coordination among the state agencies that serve kids and more political backing from Gov. Rick Scott.
The discussion came as members of the cabinet reviewed a strategic plan -- now 7 years old -- and set a new course for improving the lives of the youngest state residents.
Members agreed to renew their mission of improving "the self-sufficiency, safety, economic stability, health and quality of life of all children and youth in Florida."
"We know we're not there," said Judy Schaechter, interim chairwoman of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Miami and a founding member of the cabinet. "We've got to get there."
The Children and Youth Cabinet was established by the Legislature in 2007 and has been housed in the governor's office ever since. It was intended to break down the so-called "silos" among state agencies -- separate missions that often keep different parts of state government from working efficiently and effectively together.
A lack of coordination is especially problematic when it comes to children who are served by multiple state agencies, said Mike Carroll, interim secretary of the Department of Children and Families.
"You've got to understand how all these services are interconnected," Carroll said. "We should be taking the blinders off."
But without a way to propose legislation or a budget to achieve their goals, some members of the panel had grown frustrated.
"This is about the very future of Florida and our country, and I would like more evidence that what we might contribute would actually lead to significant progress for the children of Florida," said David Lawrence, chairman of the Children's Movement of Florida and another founding member of the cabinet.
The cabinet includes the secretaries of the Department of Children and Families, the Department of Juvenile Justice, the Department of Education and the Agency for Health Care Administration, along with the surgeon general, who heads the Department of Health, and the directors of the Agency for Persons with Disabilities, the Office of Early Learning, the statewide Guardian ad Litem Office and the Office of Child Abuse Prevention.
It also includes appointees of the governor, attorney general, chief financial officer, Florida Supreme Court and both chambers of the Legislature.
Chairwoman Wansley Walters, former secretary of the Department of Juvenile Justice, said the cabinet had made some significant achievements, such as promoting awareness of human trafficking and bullying.
But the panelists agreed that they needed to find a way to pool their resources -- both human and financial
"I think more support from the governor's office and giving us that underpinning to move forward is very important," said Barbara Palmer, director of the Agency for Persons with Disabilities. "But whether it's legislation, interagency agreement -- whatever it is that we can now share resources, I think, is very, very critical. Or we're not going to be able to move anything forward."
Attorney Steve Uhlfelder, a Scott appointee, suggested the cabinet develop several legislative priorities that Walters, as chairwoman, would propose to the governor.
"If we went to the Legislature without the support of the governor, it wouldn't mean anything," Uhlfelder said.
"The right place to start is the governor," Lawrence agreed.
But a number of the panelists, including Lawrence, noted that they were not criticizing Scott.
"The governor's made more progress on early childhood (education) this past session than has been made in 10 years," Lawrence said. "I respect the governor fully. He does care about children. We still have a cabinet that is foundering."
He pointed to the Healthy Start initiative, begun under the late Gov. Lawton Chiles in response to high infant mortality rates. "I want this cabinet to stand for something, to get something done," Lawrence concluded.
Uhlfelder urged the panel to boost the state's early investment in children, so as to prevent potential problems from becoming acute as the children age. He also proposed that the group move quickly, since the budget process for the next fiscal year is already underway.
"We can invest in them now or pay for them later," agreed Carroll, who urged the group to identify all the agencies' funding sources and coordinate them so as to make the best use of dollars. "The money has to follow the kids and their needs."
By the end of the five-hour meeting, the cabinet members were upbeat.
"This is a passionate and unruly group," Walters said. "There are some things we need to put in place to position ourselves for the next step. I am so optimistic that we are going to redefine and reinvent ourselves, because the last thing I ever want this group to hear is that we don't do anything."