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Tana Ebbole

Tana Ebbole

Douglas C. Lyons

May 26, 2002

Q. You've been involved in children's services for some time. What assessment would you give Florida? Is it a child-friendly state?

A. I think Florida is a state that is struggling very hard to figure out what it is relative to children, families and seniors. I think there is language that describes a state that is child-friendly, and I think there are words that talk in terms of "leaving no child behind," "quality education," "school readiness," "good maternal-child health outcomes."

Those things don't happen in a vacuum. Those things don't happen by just saying the words. It does require putting significant resources, talent and commitment into areas that you are going to be investing in. I think we have the language. I don't think we've yet achieved the follow-through to the language.

Q. There seems to be a dichotomy. In many parts of Florida, there are adequate services and programs for children. And then there are stories like the Rilya Wilson case, which fosters sympathy and a feeling that those kinds of child welfare issues are someone else's problems.

A. I think that is human nature. When you talk to people you'll find that their own back yard is a fine one. And somebody else's is somebody else's problem. The problem is that we can too easily become complacent and say "Mine is OK and I won't worry about yours!" That's unacceptable.

Mine cannot be OK if yours isn't, too. Somehow we have to begin to create the cultural expectation and norm that mine being good isn't good enough. We have to be committed to making everybody's very good. It's unfortunate that we have to keep falling back on these clich´s but in a real sense, they are true. It does take a village to raise a child. We can't leave any child behind. They're both true, and I think we need to move beyond the rhetoric into the doing.

Q. So, what'll it take to go beyond the rhetoric?

A. If I knew what it took, I'd be spending time trying to achieve it. But I do think there are some things where a level of responsibility falls on every sector of society, from the media, through the social services arena, through the private sector through public education -- I think all of us have played a part in why the change isn't happening.

Fundamentally, there has to be a political and a public will that is created that will not accept less. We're in a chicken and egg situation. For example, we know that quality child care requires certified teachers, high quality centers, low student/teacher ratios and that cost a lot of money. We know that the private citizen couldn't pay for what that costs.

And yet from a government perspective, the philosophy is for less money and fewer taxes. So we have a conflict between what our values are and what we're willing to pay for them. Somehow, we've got to find a way to bring those two together.

The same is true with the Florida Department of Children & Families. We blame DCF because they don't do a good job, but yet we starve them for resources and the Florida Legislature micromanages them by saying we'll give you 60 investigators, but we'll only pay them $25,000. What they really need is 60 investigators and to pay them $45,000. Our belief is to have less government, so we can get rid of all this, but when a child dies or is lost, we're appalled.

We're almost in a schizophrenic moment. The adults in this society have a responsibility in taking on an adult role when it comes to kids. That simply means to take care of kids. How we get that shift to occur? I don't know. We just have to keep plugging away at it.

Q. That schizophrenic moment, as you call it, seems to be continuing in child welfare services with the coming of communit-based care. How well do you think this new state initiative will work and how will it affect your program?

A. I think anything can work, if you have a very good plan, an effective service-delivery system that is based upon data and research that tells you how things should work, the full funding to cover the costs to implement it, and the people with the talents, skills and capacity to carry out that implementation.

Those are four very significant factors that have to be in place. If what we're saying in the state of Florida is that I will give you the same amount of money that I have now to do a job that is bigger, and if I have these four components which will be much more costly, both in resources and talent, then I'm terribly concerned. I honestly think that if you do that in a privatized system or within DCF, you still need those four components. It doesn't matter where you do it, and critical to that is the accountability piece -- how do I know that I have those four elements? How am I demonstrating that they are in play?

I am very concerned about how this is being thought through and carried through. I know this is called "community-based care." In my opinion, this is privatizing the child-welfare system. We're saying that a government agency is not going to run the child-welfare system. We're going to contract with a private vendor to plan, implement and manage a child- welfare system, and government will be the contract monitor. I think the jury is very far out on this. I think the timeline is way too fast. I think the resources are way too limited, and I think the opportunity to do planning, developing and infrastructure capacity building is not sufficient.

We see one of our fundamental roles is advocacy and oversight for all children. Toward that end, we see this as a critical area. We're funding an independent evaluation of this privatization in Palm Beach County to see what happens with it. The second thing is that we're funding a contract position for the Community Alliance to help provide effective oversight around the issue of privatization.

Now, is our priority the children of working poor families, so that parents can go to work and the child isn't left home alone? Or should the priority be on those children who are in an abusive, at-risk situation, and if they had full child care, we could minimize those risks? We're in a state that says we have to make those choices.

Q. Isn't all this taking place in a backdrop of a big group of children who are fast becoming teenagers? What should Florida be doing to prepare for that?

A. There's just no question that children don't raise children, and children don't raise themselves. Until we understand that we have to create opportunities for parents to ¸ understand their responsibility to ensure children are in a safe, nurturing and supportive environment, then we can talk until we're blue in the face and those middle school kids are going to be going home from school, hanging out with each other at the mall, getting depressed, not having effective supervision, having sex and getting pregnant, using drugs, nobody noticing that the child may be clinically depressed and committing suicide, or homicide.

And all this doesn't have anything to do with poverty. It is a fundamental question of are we going to ensure that that is how we're going to work as a society, and how do we help to provide parents who may have some resources a place to have their kids participate in a safe environment.

Q. I understand your organization has such a program to help parents. Care to explain?

A. We really do believe that parents are their children's first teachers, their homeschool and role models. Even adolescents who may say "I don't want to have anything to do with my parents" -- at the end of the day, they really are looking to the parents to see what the parent does and model that behavior.

Unfortunately -- and I'm in this generation that I'm about to speak of -- my generation lost sight of the value and importance of parenting. That is something that is our responsibility, and it's critically important and requires sacrifice and time. I think we got caught in the belief that it's quality and not quantity of time. Kids need both quality and quantity of time, and they need that from adults who serve as coaches, mentors and role models. It may not be that parent, but that child has got to find an adult who serves in that role.

We're trying to make connections and ties that create a sense of belonging, of community and of hope. That comes to children through the environments that they are in and the adults who support those environments.

Q. Have you seen examples of individuals stepping up to the plate, so to speak, to become those nurturing adults?

A. Oh, sure! Look at people who are coaching teams and mentoring kids. Look at those individuals who work in child care centers who are with that child 10 hours a day, five days a week. Or adults in after-care programs who make sure that youngsters under their wings stay on the straight and narrow. Every adult who is in a community and has contact with kids has that same responsibility, and that will work, if we understand it.

Q. Yours is the first taxing district for children in South Florida. Broward County started its council last year, and I understand Miami-Dade County will consider one this November. Is this a trend? Are taxpayers coming around to see the need to put their money in such services?

A. I think the taxpayers have always been willing to take care of their kids. I don't think we've asked the taxpayers the right questions, nor have we given the taxpayer the right place to invest in. People know. There's an intuitive logic about everything I've said, and every adult would agree with us.

If we ask the taxpayer to invest only in deep-end programs and systems that can only fail, they're not going to do it. They're not going to put their money down a rat hole. But I think they do know, and will support, ways to develop assets, to harness potential and invest in support systems for families raising their kids and that those dividends will pay off in turning kids into successful citizens.

People intuitively understand that. They might not describe a model system, but they know it. They know Johnny can't be left by himself. They know that a sixth-grader shouldn't be at home after school watching a 3-year-old without adult supervision while the mother works. They wouldn't tolerate that.

Q. So, given what most folks think of taxes and taxing districts, what sage advice would you give your counterparts to the south regarding what they should or shouldn't do to maintain the public's confidence in their operations?

A. I don't know about sage advice or wisdom, but we've got to keep our eye on the gold ring. We've got to stay focused on what our purpose is and what our mission is, and in doing that, how to enlist as many partners to help us get to that gold ring.

We can't do it alone, and if we think we can, we're fools. We really have to understand that this is where we're going and how can we get more partners to go with us.

It's really that simple. It's hard to do, but in my mind, it's quite a simple thing.

Interviewed by Sun-Sentinel Editorial Writer Douglas C. Lyons

Copyright © 2002, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Copyright © 2001, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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