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Child aid plan is under fire

Published Oct. 18, 2005

With the approach of Tuesday's referendum on the proposed Children's Services Council, opponents continue their campaign to persuade voters to reject the idea. In recent weeks, opponents have spoken to church and civic groups. They have appeared on a local radio talk show. They have distributed leaflets against the children's council at school bus stops.

Some of the most vocal detractors see the children's council as anti-religious and, ultimately, anti-family. Their concerns touch on issues ranging from the evils of abortion to the dangers posed by modern psychology to the need for Bible study in public schools. They speak sincerely and emphasize their desire to help children, but they do not always get their facts straight.

For example, some opponents have distributed fliers stating the children's council would use computers to track children "from birth on." In a recent interview, Betty Young, an outspoken critic of the council, was "sure" Pinellas County's Juvenile Welfare Board maintains a computer database on children.

Pinellas' board keeps no such records, and proponents of the Pasco children's council say they neither plan nor would be authorized legally to keep files on every child in the county.

Even so, the concern over record-keeping is consistent with opponents' portrayal of the children's council as a bureaucracy that would intrude on parents' rights.

Opponents such as Mrs. Young contend the council is the product of a group of mental health counselors and educators who have worked since the early 1960s to purge spiritual and moral education from public schools.

"It's another religion," she said. "They've kicked Christianity and the moral absolutes of the Ten Commandments out of the schools and they've put in another religion."

Mrs. Young further contended the absence of Christian values in public schools has weakened the structure of the family enough to create a generation of child abusers.

"This humanist philosophy has permeated our school system to the point where we've created the child abusers by the very people who are now going to solve the problem," she said. "I'm sorry, but that doesn't make any sense to me."

Supporters, opponents differ radically

Listen to supporters and opponents of the children's council speak, and it is easy to imagine two radically different organizations.

As proponents describe it, the children's council would be a way of meeting the needs of disturbed Pasco children now on waiting lists for counseling or other services.

The 10-member council would be similar to the Juvenile Welfare Board that Pinellas has had for 44 years. Four members would be elected officials. A fifth would represent the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS) to avoid duplication of services. The governor would appoint the remaining five members from a list of 15 nominees chosen by the County Commission.

To raise funds for children's services, the council could set a property tax of up to one-half a mill, or 50 cents for every $1,000 of assessed, taxable valuation.

Supporters say the children's council would give existing programs money to provide counseling to troubled youngsters before their problems get worse.

"I think it's just a real conservative approach," County Commissioner Ann Hildebrand said.

Opponents counter that the children's council would trample the rights of parents to raise their children according to their beliefs.

"This is one bureaucracy that has the power to come in and destroy families," Young said. She added that the council could require children to undergo psychological evaluation and receive counseling even if their parents objected.

Hildebrand said supporters of the children's council do not plan to establish new services but instead want to finance services not adequately meeting children's needs.

"The children that are going to be involved in this are children who are going through the system," she said. "They're children who already have been identified as being in a crisis. It isn't every Dick and Jane and Suzy."

Two other opponents _ Allen Biles and George Rochford, members of Right to Life _ voiced other concerns Tuesday on WPSO's "open line" radio talk show.

Biles said, "I don't think the people of this county can afford more taxation." But part of his discussion of taxation misrepresented the history of the Juvenile Welfare Board in Pinellas.

Biles said the Juvenile Welfare Board in Pinellas County was not publicly financed until 1986, even though it was created in the 1940s.

But the Pinellas board has been financed publicly since it was established in 1946 by a special legislative act. In 1986, the Legislature made it possible for other Florida counties to create such boards.

Biles also said, "What they levy now, they've gone from a half mill to one mill, and they're looking at going to one and a half mills. And there's no end to it."

It is true Pinellas residents voted by a 2-to-1 margin in September to increase the Juvenile Welfare Board's taxing authority from half a mill to one mill. This year, though, the board levies a tax of less than one-half of a mill.

"We're not projected to go to the full mill anytime soon," board spokeswoman Kate Howze said. She said the tax rate is not likely to reach a mill for at least five to seven years. Howze also said there has been no discussion of going to one and a half mills.

In Pasco, supporters of the children's council also say voters would not lose control over the tax rate.

"No. 1, the amount is set by the voters; No. 2, (the council) can't exceed that without another referendum; and, No. 3, the law as changed by the Legislature in 1990 allows a referendum to be scheduled so that voters can dissolve it if they don't like it," Pasco-Pinellas Circuit Judge Lynn Tepper said.

Abortion services funds a concern

Adversaries of the children's council also often mention the possibility some tax revenues could be allocated to organizations providing money for services or counseling related to abortion.

To opponents, abortion is intertwined with child abuse and neglect.

"When you teach a child to have all of the premarital sex that he or she wants and that if she gets pregnant, it's all right to go ahead and have her baby ripped from her womb, you already have a child abuser," Mrs. Young said. She added that opponents would "object strenuously" to giving money to Planned Parenthood, "which is what they do in Pinellas County."

But Juvenile Welfare Board officials in Pinellas say the board never has given money to Planned Parenthood. Its current budget does allocate money for a program to help teen-age parents, but the money is going to the Young Women's Christian Association of St. Petersburg.

Not only has the Pinellas board never given money to Planned Parenthood, but it also has a policy not to pay for "contraception, the dispensing of contraception or abortion counseling," said James Mills, the executive director of the Juvenile Welfare Board.

While the Pinellas board has not allocated money for groups such as Planned Parenthood, Florida law does not prevent children's councils from supporting such organizations. The council in Palm Beach County has allocated money to Planned Parenthood.

Commissioner Hildebrand said no one has decided what organizations would receive money if a Pasco children's council were created. Before that decision could be made, the council would have to study exactly what Pasco's needs were.

Hildebrand also noted she rarely encounters concerns over abortion or money for Planned Parenthood when she speaks to groups about the children's council.