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Pleading for children

Every year about midway through the legislative session, a couple of hundred people make a special trip to Tallahassee to speak for Florida's children.

The advocates come together at a conference sponsored by the Florida Center for Children and Youth to gather strength for the task that seems to get tougher every year: working on behalf of the poor and vulnerable children who depend on state social services to survive.

They speak about a child growing up in poverty, or the one who was born too small, barely alive and riddled with developmental problems because her mother got no prenatal care. They tell about the siblings who have been in foster care longer than the law allows but for whom there is no other place to go. Their eyes sting with tears as they mention the baby who died at the hands of his mother's boyfriend.

They try to get the attention of their elected officials, waiting in their offices or trailing them in Capitol hallways, hoping the politicians will have a minute to listen to their pitches in favor of bills that would make a positive difference and against those that would be harmful.

They plead, please, no more cuts to programs that save children's lives.

It's a discouraging endeavor for which in many cases there is no pay (or scant pay for those whose jobs are in social service) and, in this time of state budgetary crisis, precious few rewards.

That's why Florida advocates for children are so fortunate to have as their cheerleader Jack Levine, executive of the Florida Center for Children and Youth. From the helm of his nonprofit citizens' organization that takes no state money, Levine challenges and encourages people whose hearts lead them to speak out for those with no political voice of their own. Given half a chance, he yells pretty loudly himself about how Florida treats its children.

In weekly updates during the session, Levine exhorts advocates to fight for specific issues. From the proposed House and Senate budget plans, for instance, Levine points out the elimination of the Medically Needy Program, which serves more than 45,000 working poor who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid; reductions in Medicaid prenatal and obstetric care; and the failure to shore up a rickety foster care system so overburdened that a class action suit charges the state with neglect.

At this year's conference, Levine deservingly was honored as children's advocate of the decade. In a year when Florida's shamefully thin budget has forced children to a lower legislative priority than usual, child advocates and the constituents they represent are particularly lucky to have Levine as their eyes and ears in Tallahassee, and their inspiration.

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