From the Northwest Florida Daily News.
June 10, 2014.
When the topic is guns, the Okaloosa County Health Department just seems to invite controversy. Last summer, health officials posted signs saying that only cops could bring firearms into the building. A gun-rights group objected and the signs came down. "We will abide by the law," Director Karen Chapman said at the time.
The current brouhaha is uglier.
Here's what happened. The Health Department hired at least one police officer to enter its Fort Walton Beach office as an "active shooter" and test the staff's response. The exercise occurred March 7. Most of the employees didn't know it was only a test. "A lot of people panicked," said City Manager Michael Beedie, whose wife works at the health office.
Important details haven't been filled in, even after three months, and that's one of the troubling aspects of this story. Here are two more:
Even though Dr. Chapman wrote in emails to her staff that "the vast majority . reacted appropriately" during the drill, she acknowledged that six staffers would've been shot had the intruder been real.
And she admitted that previous exercises weren't taken seriously by many staffers, who simply ignored them.
"Sad to say, in our world this type of incident could happen anywhere," Dr. Chapman said in explaining why the March 7 scenario was designed to be realistic.
She's right about it happening anywhere. In March 2009, a crazed gunman killed 10 people in tiny Samson, Alabama, just 80 miles from Fort Walton Beach.
We don't know if health officials were thinking of the Samson rampage when they planned their "active shooter" exercise, but they certainly got more than they bargained for. The Florida Department of Health is investigating. A lawsuit is said to be pending.
Perhaps the state investigation will help us better understand what happened. People who visit the Okaloosa County Health Department deserve to know that staffers there are prepared to deal with the unexpected. Even the unthinkable.
From the Tampa Bay Times.
June 13, 2014.
Government agencies should not waste time and money trying to prevent access to public records. Under new leadership, the Florida Department of Children and Families has finally embraced that message and later this month will unveil a promising new website that will give the public unprecedented access to information so they can assess suspicious child deaths and how the agency investigated them. That is the openness Floridians expect from Tallahassee, and it should allow the agency to focus more energy on its mission to protect the state's most vulnerable residents.
A grim series of articles in the Miami Herald this spring, titled "Innocents Lost," detailed that despite prior contact with child welfare authorities, some 477 children in Florida had suffered preventable deaths since 2008. The series prompted legislators to adopt significant changes to the state's child welfare laws and funnel much-needed resources to help reduce workers' caseloads. But a subplot to the stories was the challenge the newspaper faced in actually obtaining access to the records. While DCF turned over some willingly, others were obtained only after the newspaper sued. And just earlier this month, the Herald detailed how for several months starting in November, the Southeast DCF office had failed to accurately record child death cases.
Now new interim DCF Secretary Mike Carroll, the former Suncoast regional director for the agency, said his goal is to set a new national standard for public information. "We need to be more transparent and just move on to doing our jobs," Carroll told the Tampa Bay Times editorial board last week.
Carroll's plan: a new website, that will be accessible at myflfamilies.com, that fulfills the Legislature's new requirements to provide more timely information to the public, but goes even further and may well lay the groundwork for community discussion about how to prevent child deaths locally.
The site will detail every child death reported to the state's abuse hotline. Within 72 hours of a child's death, the public can view the deceased's name, age, date of death and, if it's been determined, the cause of death and a brief narrative of how the child died. After the cases are closed, a death report will be added. The site also will note whether the deceased's family was previously known to DCF. And users will be able to search by county, a tool Carroll anticipates will help DCF tailor education and safety campaigns. Carroll expects the website to debut in about two weeks and feature six years of data by September and 10 years' worth of information by the end of the year.
This is good public policy and a necessary step in shifting the agency from defense to offense. Carroll is welcoming public scrutiny but also displaying faith in his workers. He's honoring Florida's open record laws and simultaneously making a statement that child welfare is far bigger than one state agency. By opening up the books, he's inviting citizens to engage. And most importantly, the move should help shift the conversation from the agency's past mistakes to its current strategies for protecting the vulnerable. That's progress.
From The Daytona Beach News-Journal.
June 13, 2014.
Every time the rain pours in Daytona Beach, people with no place to find shelter get soaked, along with their possessions. When the temperature hits the 90s in DeLand, people with no place to cool off, take a shower or wash their clothes suffer. And now that school's out, thousands of local children in Palm Coast, New Smyrna Beach, Deltona and other cities will have nowhere to go but their parents' cars, rented hotel rooms or other precarious lodgings.
This is the reality of homelessness in Volusia and Flagler counties: A fight for survival and the barest human dignity. It's a reality that at times appears lost in the power struggles between local agencies and advocates, rife with allegations of conflicts of interest and grandstanding.
For the sake of the area's neediest, most-impoverished residents, it's past time to lay those conflicts aside and work together.
That can start with a re-commitment to openness and cooperation. Advocates from one local advocacy group have accused the Volusia Flagler Coalition for the Homeless, the agency charged with compiling data and monitoring the performance of local homeless-service providers, of cronyism and secrecy about how it applies for and helps to distribute millions of dollars in annual funding for direct services to homeless people. To her credit, the coalition's executive director Lisa Hamilton has shared much of the organization's financial data with outside groups, including The News-Journal. Previous audits have turned up no irregularities, Hamilton told reporter Eileen Zaffiro-Kean, and another audit is planned to begin soon after the coalition's fiscal year ends June 30.
But many say they don't have enough financial data to fully assess the coalition's performance, including the agency's overhead. Hamilton objects to requests for a so-called "forensic audit," which implies that there has been wrongdoing on the part of the coalition. "Nobody has said, 'we think you are stealing. We think you are committing fraud,'" she said Friday.
It's a valid complaint, and the coalition's critics — including Volusia County Councilman Josh Wagner and members of an advocacy group known as H.O.M.E. of Daytona Beach — should explain exactly what information they think is missing.
Then the coalition should provide that information. A full, detailed and transparent accounting of the coalition's operations, including a detailed breakdown of its own $470,000 budget, should go a long way toward clearing the air.
In the coming week, an election overseen by the Daytona Regional Chamber of Commerce will choose members of the Continuum of Care, an independent board that will include advocates, local government representatives, schools, police and other community leaders that will help guide funding decisions. That board can also help provide oversight and accountability. And by the end of the summer, the community will have the benefit of a report by Robert Marbut, a nationally-recognized expert on homelessness hired by the city of Daytona Beach to assess local services and gaps, and recommend the most effective ways to provide services.
But one thing is already clear: For the sake of the men, women and children clinging to the edges of economic survival in Volusia and Flagler counties, the current conflict is distracting and destructive.