Advocates push child abuse prevention after Jacksonville girl's death
FORT LAUDERDALE - In the aftermath of an 8-year-old Jacksonville girl's abduction and slaying, Florida's child advocates are once again asking state leaders to support child abuse prevention programs - programs like a $3 million education effort that Gov. Rick Scott vetoed last month. Cherish Perrywinkle, who police say was targeted by a registered sex offender, was killed Friday. Child advocates said tragedies like her death dominate headlines for a few days, but often vanish without meaningful changes. Some are pushing to have more dollars funneled into prevention, which they say also saves lives and money in the long run. One such program, "Safer, Smarter Families," would have educated school children from kindergarten through fifth grade on stranger danger and abuse prevention. Scott vetoed $3 million for the program last month, noting the curriculum could be developed in the private sector.Scott's office did not directly comment on the veto Tuesday, but pointed to several other programs the governor had approved to keep families safe, including nearly $3 million to enhance child abuse investigative teams. Earlier, Scott noted that the state made a $550,000 appropriation this year to Lauren's Kids, a child abuse prevention organization that has received state money in the past to bring that curriculum to kindergarteners statewide. The organization said it would use this year's funds to "extend the reach of these critical educational materials," but it's unclear when and where the program will be expanded and whether it will be enough to cover all grade levels. In a written statement Tuesday, the program's founder said, "Cherish and her mother were targeted by a sex offender whose tactics were predatory and sadly predictable." Lauren Book added that it's common for predators to exploit families' vulnerabilities, whether it be lack of transportation, child care, money or a place to stay, as was the case in Cherish's death. Authorities said Donald James Smith, 56, befriended the girl and her mother while they were shopping Friday night. Smith later took them to a Wal-Mart, where he offered to buy them clothes and hamburgers, according to the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office. But instead of buying the snacks, Smith walked out of the store with the girl, the sheriff's office said. Cherish's mother called 911 when she noticed they were missing. The child's body was found in the woods near a church Saturday morning. Police arrested Smith and charged him with murder and kidnapping. Smith has been a registered sex offender since a 1993 conviction in Duval County for attempted kidnapping and selling obscene materials. He has been arrested several times since then. Statewide, the Florida Department of Children and Families verified more than 53,000 victims of child abuse from 2011-2012. Not only do those cases represent wrenching tragedies, advocates say they also represent huge social costs. The lifetime cost of caring for every surviving child victimized by physical, sexual, psychological abuse or neglect was $210,012, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And the cost recurs, meaning the next year another group of child victims will be abused and require lifetime care, said Roy Miller, CEO of the advocacy group the Children's Campaign. "What are we doing in the state to empower children to know when they might be in danger?" Miller asked. "Children need the knowledge themselves. They just can't rely on their parents and other responsible adults at that moment in time when they are in most danger." But it can be difficult to persuade lawmakers to fund prevention programs when other needs, like more beds for domestic violence victims, are often so acute that prevention programs get short changed, said DCF Secretary David Wilkins. He has spent the past two years evaluating the effectiveness of a program that sends counselors into the homes of at-risk mothers and found it had a 94 percent success rate of keeping those kids out of foster care and their moms out of prison or substance abuse programs. He used those stats successfully to lobby the Legislature this year for an additional $5 million for that program. DCF is currently testing a half-dozen other prevention programs, including one that teaches students about predators and sexual abuse, and will use those figures to ask for more money next year. "We can sit here and look at our state budget and say we can't afford it but we're paying for it in all the parts of the budget, which is why we need to have the governor, the legislature and state agencies rethink their prevention strategy," Miller said. "They are still after-the-fact oriented and they'll never get ahead of the curve unless things change."