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Florida editorial roundup

November 6, 2019 GMT

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

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Nov. 5

The Palm Beach Post on prioritizing mental health:

The Jerome Golden Center for Behavioral Health is quickly becoming the poster child for a dearth of mental health services funding in the state of Florida.

The 50-year-old West Palm Beach hospital, which abruptly closed its doors late last month after a failed attempt at Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization, is the catalyst for what many fear is a snowballing crisis of available mental health care services in Palm Beach County.

A crisis that no local officials seemed able to predict -- and none appear able to stop.

Kudos, then, to county commissioners for calling out state officials to finally put their money where their mouths are. This state ranks last among U.S. states in per-person spending on mental health services. Florida, which spends about $36 per person per year, is ahead of only one U.S. jurisdiction, Puerto Rico, where per capita spending is about $20.

Florida has neither a mental health czar nor a single coordinating agency. Instead, the state relies on an underfunded, disparate network of mental health providers being overseen by an overworked, fragmented group of regional entities -- like the Southeast Florida Behavioral Health Network, which apparently didn’t know the Golden Center was hemorrhaging about $2 million a year.

Little wonder, then, that mental health providers like the Jerome Golden Center, which was serving more than 1,800 mostly indigent patients a year when it closed last month, must scratch and scrape for every dime just to operate.

Palm Beach County commissioners, visibly frustrated with the shambles left by the Golden Center’s collapse, last week asked the local legislative delegation to pressure the state Agency for Health Care Administration (AHCA) for help preventing a crisis of care.

The state lawmakers met with officials from AHCA and the state Department of Children and Families about continuing care for the Golden Center’s former patients.

?(Palm Beach County) was already down a significant number of (mental health) patient beds,” state Sen. Lori Berman, D-Boynton Beach, told the Post Editorial Board Tuesday, “and the Golden Center’s hospital closing only exacerbates the problem.”

She said at the meeting, which included AHCA Secretary Mary Mayhew, focused on gathering information about possible receivership and sale of the center’s assets to a single buyer, transitioning patients to other providers and making sure disability payments are not interrupted.

“We do want answers as to what happened,” Berman said, “but right now, the most important thing is getting help for those indigent people suffering from mental issues.”

That’s good. But longer-term, Gov. Ron DeSantis must prioritize mental health services in his proposed 2020-21 budget to force legislators to debate higher funding in the upcoming session.

Because, sadly, the crisis in our county illustrates the lack of urgency with which our state leaders habitually approach mental health. Sad, because mental health providers around the state are under increasing pressure, as some 900 people move here each day and more of our kids are diagnosed with mental health issues.

While it may be true that the nonprofit Golden Center was “mismanaged,” it is also true that it faced unceasing demands amid shrinking resources.

The center, the linchpin in the county’s mental health network, operated a 44-bed in-patient hospital, an out-patient clinic, a pharmacy and addiction treatment programs. What’s more, the Golden Center had been a critical destination for patients held under the state’s Baker Act and provided housing for several long-term patients.

And as the Post’s Hannah Morse and Lulu Ramadan reported, about 150 former Golden Center patients have been cut off from their monthly Social Security payments. These patients with severe mental illnesses relied on the center to manage their monthly disability checks, which went toward rent, food and other necessities. About 130 of those patients lived in Golden Center housing -- apartments that are expected to close by mid-December.

Other mental health providers for low-income, at-risk patients such as The Lord’s Place and the South County Mental Health Center in Delray Beach can’t make up the difference.

A spokesman for South County Mental Health, which also manages disability payments for patients, said it doesn’t have the resources to oversee those payments for dozens of new clients.

State health officials -- and lawmakers -- must continue to step up on this crucial issue. Or they risk sending an onerous message to mental health providers around the state: You’re on your own.

Online: https://www.palmbeachpost.com

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Nov. 1

The Orlando Sentinel on a bill that prohibits arresting children under 12:

No one in his or her right mind would imagine any state allowing the arrest of a first-grader.

But in Florida, all things are possible.

Because state law lacks a minimum age requirement for arrest and prosecution, two 6-year-olds were arrested at an Orlando school this September. One of the children even booked and had a mug shot taken, all for throwing a tantrum.

The arrest was legal, but it prompted a public reprimand from State Attorney Aramis Ayala, who ultimately wiped the child’s record clean.

Now, Orlando state Sen. Randolph Bracy is taking action to make sure situations like that never happen again.

Bracy filed a bill recently that prohibits the arrest of children under 12 and creates tighter parameters surrounding arrests of minors between 12 to 17 years old to reduce the number of kids being farmed out to the criminal justice system.

The bill leaves room for unusual circumstances, such as someone under 12 being accused of murder or sexual battery. Crimes of these magnitude by small children are less common, but they do happen and deserve the attention of a judge to make the appropriate call.

Bracy’s bill makes good sense, and the Legislature needs to take it up and pass it before more young kids are unnecessarily traumatized by getting cuffed and hauled off to a police station.

Florida saw 1,994 children under the age of 13 arrested, according to the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice’s 2018-19 report. Out of the state’s 20 judicial circuits, the 9th Circuit, which covers Orange and Osceola counties, has consistently seen the highest number of youths arrested for the past five years.

It’s unclear right now if these numbers reflect overzealous policing of certain communities. Myriad other factors could come into play, including population size, poverty, drugs, community or family support.

We can’t say with certainty why Orange and Osceola continue to arrest so many more children each year than, for example, Miami and Jacksonville. That’s an issue for another day.

Some law enforcement agencies across the state already understand the folly of arresting young kids. Those agencies require, for example, approval for an arrest by a captain or supervisor.

The Eustis Police Department requires senior-level approval for children under 10. Sanford police require arrest approvals for kids under 13. And following the fallout after the two 6-year-olds were arrested at Lucious and Emma Nixon Academy last month, the Orlando Police Department revised its policy. Now, arrests for children under 12 requires approval from one of the department’s deputy police chiefs.

Florida is among 23 states that allow children of any age to be arrested and prosecuted, despite medical studies published by the National Institutes of Health suggesting kids lack the cognitive maturity to comprehend or benefit from the juvenile justice system.

States like California, Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississippi figured out age minimums for arrests are just sound, common sense practice.

And like the bill Bracy filed, some states have exemptions to the law to account for heinous crimes. California, for example, does not hold children criminally responsible unless the arrest involves murder or rape. The same goes for Vermont, which does not allow children under 10 to be prosecuted.

In Florida, you can be arrested and booked at 6. Changing that is a slam-dunk. It shouldn’t take legislators beyond the 2020 session to get this right.

For all we know, one of those 1,994 children under 13 arrested in Florida last year could be another 6-year-old like Kaia Rolle.

She will be a number in next year’s arrest count in the next fiscal report, but it won’t include her story.

The report won’t tell you Kaia dealt with medical issues that affected her behavior leading up to the moment when a school resource officer, Dennis Turner, placed her in handcuffs.

The report won’t show you the trauma of the arrest. Her grandmother, Meralyn Kirkland, said Kaia still has nightmares, wets the bed and is dealing with separation anxiety, according to her therapist.

The report won’t tell you how a 6-year-old girl is now afraid of the very people charged to protect her.

Kaia doesn’t have the capacity to fully understand what happened to her or why adults were allowed to be so “mean” to her, as her grandmother said she calls it.

We’re struggling to understand, too.

Online: https://www.orlandosentinel.com

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Oct. 22

The Gainesville Sun on halting toll road plans:

Florida lawmakers authorized three new toll roads this spring even though transportation officials didn’t have them in their long-term plans. They still lack projections for expected costs, demand and toll revenue from the roads.

None of this mattered to the Legislature. Under the leadership of Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, lawmakers approved building more than 300 miles of toll roads through largely rural areas of the state without such basic information.

Instead, they created task forces of citizens who were given the unenviable job of trying to understand the environmental and fiscal impact of the roads. But as these groups continue to meet, it has become even more clear that there was little planning done before lawmakers pushed through Florida’s largest highway expansion in 50 years.

The state created three task forces, one for each road: an extension of the Suncoast Parkway from Citrus County to the Georgia line, a connector between the Florida Turnpike and the Suncoast Parkway, and a new road from Polk County to Collier County.

Transportation officials haven’t even provided any data to the task forces on whether the roads are needed, the Tampa Bay Times reported. At a recent meeting of the Suncoast connector task force, members were frustrated with the lack of such details.

“We need to talk about the demand for people to pay tolls, right? What is projected revenue and what are projected costs?” said task force member Thomas Hawkins, a former Gainesville city commissioner who now directs a University of Florida master of urban and regional planning online program. “I don’t see it anywhere on this sheet. That’s a problem.”

The tight timeline of the projects makes it an even bigger problem. The task forces have until October to issue their recommendations. Construction is scheduled to start in 2022 and the roads are supposed to be built by 2030.

“We’re beating a dead horse right now before it’s even born,” said Dixie County Commissioner Mark Hatch, another member of the Suncoast connector task force.

Hatch said task force members are stumped with developing vague environmental recommendations, while knowing little about the road’s route, costs and what it would displace. Preliminary routes aren’t even supposed to be put forward until early next year.

Galvano has dismissed such concerns. He said last week simply that these “these corridors need to exist,” pointing to the state’s growing population and tourism as reasons.

But Galvano’s plan would encourage that growth in areas that are largely underdeveloped, including North Florida’s springs heartland. Florida needs to better manage growth, not accelerate the kind of sprawling development that is the most damaging to the environment and wasteful in using groundwater, energy and other resources.

Hawkins and others have rightly said that Florida should first look at improving existing corridors before building new toll roads. Unless the state puts the brakes on the toll roads, it will have less funding for transportation projects that are actually thought-out rather than pushed through without planning by a powerful lawmaker.

Online: http://www.gainesville.com