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Callers doubt child aid plan

At the beginning of the WPSO "open line" show Monday, station general manager Glenn Adkins made a quick comment to introduce the day's topic: the Children's Services Council referendum. "You would think something that's here to help children would not cause controversy and confusion," Adkins said.

Then the telephones started ringing.

In the next two hours, Adkins and his listeners discovered just how much controversy and confusion has been generated by the proposed creation of the council, an issue voters will decide Nov. 6.

People called to ask how the council would operate. Some asked why the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS) can't provide all the necessary programs. Someone called to suggest that the community's problems with children were caused by taking the Bible from the schools.

Adkins' three guests _ Circuit Judge Lynn Tepper, HRS district administrator Michael Becker and county health department director Dr. Marc Yacht _ ran out of time long before they ran out of callers.

Tepper and other proponents have been plugging the children's council for many months, trying to explain how it would work, how it would raise money. At times Monday as callers spoke, Tepper shook her head, disappointed at persistent misconceptions regarding the council.

"The Children's Service Council," one caller said, "is going to have the authority over all children. It will be transferred from the parents to a 10-member board."

Tepper interjected: "That's not accurate, ma'am."

Undaunted, the caller went on: "Once this happens, it'll be an entity unto itself, and then parents will have no further input on this board once it is voted in. Can you explain this?"

Becker responded, "The Children's Services Council has no legal authority to intervene in ... family life at all." It's simply a planning and financing body with four elected officials among the 10 council members, he said.

The caller continued: "This board will have broad powers over all the children in this county."

Tepper tried again to explain the coun

cil. "We can't go knocking on your door and taking your children," she said. "That has not happened in 44 years in Pinellas County," where the Juvenile Welfare Board has operated much as the children's council would in Pasco.

The council issue will be one of the three local referendums on the Nov. 6 ballot. Approval would create a 10-member board to raise and distribute money for children's programs in Pasco. The council would have the authority to levy a tax of up to one-half of a mill, which is 50 cents for every $1,000 of assessed taxable property. In other counties, the boards initially have levied a much lower rate, such as 11 cents per $1,000 in Hillsborough County.

"This year, some (councils) are up to two or three mills," one caller said.

"That's not true," Tepper countered, explaining that all children's councils in Florida have a limit of one-half a mill. Only Pinellas County has the authority to levy more, and that authority was granted recently when Pinellas voters agreed to increase the board's taxing authority.

The caller continued, suggesting that "we should have Washington help us out."

Yacht responded, saying the solution to Pasco problems is not in Washington, but in this community. "We're not talking about Pasco paying for problems in Hillsborough County," Yacht said. The solutions will be determined by people in Pasco County, he said.

"When can't we just clean up the program that we already have?" one caller asked, referring to HRS. "I don't believe we need two programs. We need to just get the one that we already have cleaned up and straightened out."

Tepper responded that unlike HRS, the council would emphasize preventive programs designed to address problems before they get to the crisis point and require HRS involvement.

"When these people come before you," another caller said, referring to parents of abused children, "how come you don't throw the book at these people legally?"

"Well, of course we do," Tepper answered, explaining that even when parents are punished for neglecting or abusing their children, that does not answer the question of what to do with their children.

Oftentimes, Tepper said, before problems become too severe and to keep the family intact, parents are ordered to seek help for themselves or their children. "It's very effective when we get them in," she said. "The problem is there's a 90-day waiting list for substance-abuse treatment, almost a year's waiting list for residential treatment."

The caller continued, "What I meant, judge, by throwing the book at them, why don't we erect more jails?"

Tepper responded, "The problem is even if you gave them the maximum penalty, that is 15 years for child abuse, what are we going to do with their children in the meantime?"