TALLAHASSEE — Eighteen months ago, Gov. Charlie Crist created a Children and Youth Cabinet with a simple promise: "Children are our highest priority."
But not everyone on the panel is convinced. Three Crist appointees say their effort to grab the Legislature's attention on the plight of Florida's kids this spring was watered down by Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp, resulting in a muffled message being sent to Crist and legislators.
Kottkamp, chairman of the 15-member advisory panel, called their letter to legislators overly aggressive and signed a much milder version, which one advocate says was significantly toned down and another called embarrassing.
The three advocates are Donna Gay Lancaster, executive director of the Children's Services Council of Pinellas County; David Lawrence, president of the Early Childhood Initiative Foundation in Miami; and Dr. Judy Schaechter, a pediatrician and professor at the University of Miami.
Their January letter, never released publicly, cited statistics that show a downward slide in the quality of life for kids, from lack of health insurance to poverty, and dropout and teenage pregnancy rates. They drafted a letter that warned against further budget cuts in children's services. It said: "We firmly realize that the choices before our state are tough. We know just as firmly that our failure to protect our children is the failure to protect the future of our beloved state."
Kottkamp's revised version omits any mention of statistical trends, and said: "The members of the Cabinet know full well that your job this session is not an easy one. You are faced with some very serious challenges. We also know, however, that you are up to the task."
"In my view, this is not the time to be overly aggressive with the Legislature," Kottkamp, a former House member, said in an interview. "I think this is the time to let them know that we want to be partners in advocating for children."
Crist was already in hot water with children's advocates for tapping the Lawton Chiles Endowment Fund to plug budget holes, and budget cuts now being considered by the Legislature would reduce state aid to public schools and increase waiting lists for prekindergarten programs.
Lawrence, a former publisher of the Miami Herald, drafted the letter. "I do the state a disservice, and the people on the Children's Cabinet do a disservice, if we don't speak up," Lawrence said in an interview.
"This isn't the time when we should be abandoning the children of this state. I find what happened to be embarrassing."
Lancaster said the first letter was "very reflective of the urgency that I feel personally about children's issues," and said Kottkamp's letter "was significantly toned down" from the first one.
The 2007 Legislature created the Children and Youth Cabinet to improve the coordination of services for children, from prenatal care to adulthood. Crist held a news conference and touted his appointees as some of the state's most knowledgeable and effective advocates for children.
"We need to let them know what we're thinking, and I think the first letter lays that out more clearly," said Schaechter, a physician and professor at the University of Miami's Mailman Center for Child Development. "We ought not be silent partners. We ought to share what we know with them."
Schaechter said the Cabinet is supposed to help identify funding sources for children's programs. "To do that, we need to speak up," she said.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.