With much chest-thumping, Gov. Rick Scott last week signed a law clipping auto-tag fees by about $25 per vehicle in Florida. He used the opportunity to blast former Gov. Charlie Crist for raising those fees five years ago.
What Scott cynically failed to mention during the bill-signing charade was that all the top Republicans standing at his side had also supported the auto-tag hikes. It was the depth of the recession, and the state desperately needed revenue.
Scott is desperate to appear gubernatorial because Crist, running as a Democrat, will likely be his opponent in the November election. The auto-tag fee cut was the centerpiece of a tax-relief agenda being pushed by the governor, who trails Crist in the early polls.
Two of the GOP lawmakers who were crowing about this grand windfall for motor-vehicle owners have an infinitely more important job in the days ahead. House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz have a chance to do something truly crucial and good.
They can shape a law that saves actual lives — the lives of endangered children.
Bills that would strengthen Florida's child welfare laws are winding through both houses of the Legislature after publication of the Miami Herald's shocking investigative series, "Innocents Lost."
The newspaper documented the deaths of at least 477 children whose parents or caregivers had a history with the state's Department of Children and Families. During the six-year period studied by reporters, DCF consistently under-reported the number of victims in its files who died because of violence or negligence by parents and caregivers.
In 2008, for example, the state said the death toll was 79. Using DCF's own records,Herald reporters found 103 fatal cases that year.
Then, in 2009, the state reported that 69 children whose families had prior contact with DCF had died. Reporters counted 107.
The uncounted die just as wretchedly — and as unnecessarily — as the counted.
One of the most awful, notorious cases involved Nubia Barahona, a 10-year-old Miami girl who'd been tortured and starved by her adoptive parents. Soaked in poisonous chemicals, her decomposing body was found inside a black garbage bag on a pest-control truck.
Three years after the murder, the DCF still hasn't sent her case to the Florida Child Abuse Death Review Committee. Incredibly, Nubia's death remains officially uncounted.
The child-welfare system has been overwhelmed and broken for a long time, but that hasn't stopped lawmakers from hacking millions in DCF funding. But this year, Florida has accumulated an extra $1.3 billion in revenues, so there's no excuse not to take action to stop the killings.
Scott has proposed $40 million to hire more DCF investigators and improve their training. That's a start, but drug-treatment and counseling programs are also needed for those who've been allowed to keep their children while under supervision.
The sad truth is there aren't enough good foster homes to let the state move all the kids now living with reckless parents in high-risk situations. In recent years, the DCF has bent over backwards to hold dysfunctional families intact, too often with lethal consequences.
In 83 cases found by the Herald, a little boy or girl died after one or more parents had signed a so-called "safety plan" pledging to take better care of the child. The Senate version of the reform bill aims to make these safety plans more than just a piece of paper. The measure would require prompt and complete reporting of certain child deaths, and offer tuition-aid incentives for social workers who want to become child-abuse investigators.
Still, the Senate bill provides only $31 million in extra funding for child protection. The House version calls for $44.5 million.
"It's tragic where Florida finds itself," Weatherford said last week.
He and Gaetz have the clout — and a moral obligation — to make other lawmakers understand the profound urgency of DCF reform. Children who are known to be in danger are dying, and the state can't even properly count how many.
With $1.3 billion in unanticipated revenue lying around, the governor and Legislature can afford to invest more than a drop in the bucket to help Florida's most helpless children.
Lowering auto-tag fees by 25 bucks might be cause for giddy back-slapping in Tallahassee, but saving even one child from a tortuous death would be a more noble accomplishment.
And one you can't put a price on.
Hiaasen writes for the Miami Herald.
Representative Ritch Workman of Melbourne goes into more detail about the bill.
Posted May 29, 2013.
Posted May 29, 2013.
Alimony Reform Is Coming [Video]
Alimony Reform Is Coming [Video]
Amber Statler-Matthews reports on push for alimony reform from permanent alimony to durational alimony.
Deborah Leff Israel founded the Florida chapter of the Second Wives Club, now called the Florida Women for Alimony Reform. Deborah explains alimony changes are needed to weed out people who truly need longer term support from those who are able-bodied and can work but get away without doing so–because of the law.
Lawyers.com videojournalist Amber Statler-Matthews reports on the changes in alimony law, looming in the horizon.
Deborah reconnected on Facebook with a friend, whom she had not seen for 26 years. They fell in love and were engaged in 2010. Three years later, they are still engaged. That’s because Deborah realized if she married her fiance and he fell into financial hardship — the permanent alimony granted to his ex-wife could become her responsibility.
Deborah’s club is part of a growing, national movement to reform alimony laws. The women in the group believe permanent alimony is wrong for several reasons:
- The alimony checks continue until the payee remarries, even if the payor becomes sick or retires.
- Increasing lifespans and co-habitation mean payments get extended much longer.
- Permanent alimony ties former spouses to unhealthy relationships.
- Court ordered alimony payments rely too much on the judge’s discretion.
Family law attorney, Lori Barkus, says new legislation, which creates uniformity and gives people standards and guidelines, is needed. She feels the laws should also allow judge’s discretion, in cases that warrant it.
Reformers are pushing for the following:
- Durational alimony allowing enough time for a long-term homemaker to establish a career, then payments should end.
- Alimony based on established formulas that take into account the length of the marriage, and the age of supported spouse.
- A set date for payments to end.
- Removal of judicial discretion on the payment terms.
Women are now making up larger numbers in the workforce. A recent study shows that 40% of married women out earn their husbands. Change in alimony is coming.
LK at Legally Kidnapped -
Critics put Florida's child welfare system under microscope After a wave of child deaths since the end of the spring legislative session, Florida lawmakers this week started looking for ways to improve the state’s child-welfare system — and got an earful from a dependency court judge