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Children must become a priority among voters, advocates say

Florida's politicians put children last instead of first because voters let them get away with it.

That was the theme expressed by children's advocates who met here Monday to rally the faithful to put the heat on state legislators. The Florida Children's Campaign launched its "Vote Kids '92" campaign with vows to increase public awareness of children's needs, register thousands of voters and vote unsupportive politicians out of office.

"Florida simply cannot afford to endanger its most priceless treasure _ its children," Gov. Lawton Chiles told the conference. "There's a whole new generation of Floridians out there watching us. You won't hear much out of them, but their cries of distress are more piercing than anything they, or anyone else, could ever say here today."

Chiles and other speakers deplored a no-new-taxes budget that has passed out of the House and Senate. It would drastically cut programs for pregnant women, babies, toddlers and juvenile offenders in need of therapy to divert them from a life of crime, Chiles said.

Chiles wants to spend about $300-million on children's services by raising $1.3-billion in new taxes for his "investment budget." Most of his planned spending on health and social programs is aimed at prevention of illness or early intervention, spending he says would save much more in higher taxes down the road.

Jack Levine, director of the Florida Center for Children and Youth, was honored as children's advocate of the decade. He urged politicians to revolt against the politicians who are "trying to tell us that we can't afford our children."

This is a bad time, the politicians say, to raise taxes. Levine ridiculed that argument.

"Maybe there's a freezer somewhere to store our children and thaw them out when the economy gets better," he said.

Chiles presented Miami lawyer Karen Gievers with the Sharon Solomon Award in recognition of her work on behalf of the state's 100,000 foster children. She filed a lawsuit charging the state with breaking its own laws on how long foster children can be kept in foster care before being placed permanently in a family.

"I sometimes describe Karen as a 7-foot-2-inch person packed into a 4-feet-10-inch frame," Chiles said, referring her to aggressive arm-twisting for children's issues.

Gievers pledged to keep fighting for children, "even if it means occasionally suing the HRS secretary, the governor and the Legislature. And that's not intended as a threat."

Gievers said legislators ought to quit worrying about lobbyists and special interest groups, and start passing the taxes needed for Chiles' budget.

Florida's children, advocates said, are suffering in a multitude of ways:

Many children don't receive basic health care and are growing up with a cycle of health problems.

One in every five children grows up in poverty.

About 10 babies die for every 1,000 babies born in Florida.

About 80 babies for every 1,000 are born with low birth weights.

About 183,000 children are predicted to be victims of child abuse or neglect this year (81,000 of them are less than 6 years old).

Juvenile delinquency has increased 65 percent during the past seven years. Of those, nearly half are children who need treatment for substance abuse or mental health problems.