After a journalism career that included publishing the Miami Herald, David Lawrence Jr. has become one of the state’s most outspoken advocates for children. He is co-founder and chair of The Children’s Movement of Florida, whose goal is “an enduring, sustainable movement to make all children the state’s No. 1 priority in investment and decision-making.” Lawrence helped pass a statewide constitutional amendment in 2002 to provide pre-kindergarten for four-year-olds. He’s also a member of the Governor’s Children and Youth Cabinet. He is president of The Early Childhood Initiative Foundation and led the campaign for The Children’s Trust, a dedicated source of early intervention and prevention funding for children in Miami-Dade.
Last year, after the murder of Nubia Barahona, Lawrence chaired a special committee investigating her death. He chaired a similar panel for Gov. Jeb Bush in 2002-03.
The News Service of Florida had five questions for Lawrence:
Q: How would you grade the 2012 legislative session for its attention to children’s issues?
LAWRENCE: Could have been worse. Needed to be a lot better…Are children front and center of decisions often enough? Not even close to it.
But you can see pockets of progress. You can see a move toward pre- and post-assessments for early learning programs. That is an important thing to do. You can see the further professionalization of child protective investigators at the Department of Children and Families. You can see some emphasis in certain high-quality after-school mentoring programs.
You also can see a lot of things that need to be done and we’re barely started at getting them done.
Q: Early learning was a huge issue this session, and Gov. Scott ended up vetoing the bill that emerged and going to rulemaking as a solution. Good news or bad?
LAWRENCE: I think that all the early signs from the Office of Early Learning and [state OEL director] Dr. [Mel] Jurado are good signs. I like the fact that the governor has moved the Office of Early Learning under his wing and therefore takes responsibility for that. I think Dr. Jurado has the potential to be an exceptional leader.
But for all of us, we’re being tested. Dr. Jurado by herself – and the governor, for that matter, cannot make money happen. The Legislature will have to make choices on how it spends money, and I would think and hope that the Legislature would see the enormous disconnect between paying $2,383 for a VPK slot, which is stunningly low, and $51,000 to incarcerate a juvenile or $21,000-plus to incarcerate an adult. We have all the evidence in the world that if you invested early, when 90 percent of brain growth occurs, that you would have a lot more children with momentum, not only before school, but during school and all throughout life.
Q: As chair of a panel that investigated the death of ten-year-old Nubia Barahona last year, are you satisfied with the state’s response?
LAWRENCE: Well, I think about this a lot, and I pray for Nubia. I’m sure she’s in heaven, and I want her to have some sort of legacy.
It’s fully clear after reading the full record, thousands of pages…there was a signal over here and over here and over here and over there and over there and over there, but almost none of them were connected. She shouldn’t have died, needn’t have died, and it is beyond sinful that she did die – particularly in such horrific circumstances.
If you were a pessimist, you’d of course say, “Boy, I can remember the history of the last 20 years of Florida, and I can remember the names of Kayla McKean and Rilya Wilson and the whole bunch [of children who died in state care] – does this ever end? And I’m not sure it will ever end, as long as human nature and some human beings are what they are. But we sure as heck ought to be able to diminish it very significantly.
In the Nubia case, what was missing was a whole bunch of common sense, of people asking questions…Now, this was all aided and abetted by – quote, parents, unquote – who, it seems to me, gamed the system pretty significantly. They are at some point going to go on trial for first-degree murder. So someone who wants to game the system probably has a pretty good chance, unless there were an extraordinary number of signals, people saying, “Better check this out.”
Q: The Children’s Movement of Florida is growing – give us some specifics.
LAWRENCE: We now have significantly north of 300,000 followers and regional committees in 17 cities. I’ve raised north of $2.5 million to do this – it’s not fueled by public money. We are in the midst of a private sector-based initiative to sign children up for health insurance. Seventy percent of uninsured children in Florida – that is, the ones who are perfectly lawful and perfectly documented – could have health insurance now if we made the outreach better and the bureaucracy less. We’re going to announce later this summer a huge reading mentoring initiative from pre-K to third grade in public schools in ten major communities around Florida. So there are lots of things going on. But building a movement is a long-term thing.
Q: Do you think you’re seeing a growth in grassroots advocacy for children because people have concluded the government can’t or won’t take care of them?
LAWRENCE: Well, it’s hard to know history when you’re living it or writing it. So it’ll be a lot easier, some years from now, to look back and say, “I can see what was happening in Florida then.”
I do think that I see, regularly, clear evidence that people want things to be better and want to be inspired. One of the things that I worry most about is that in this country, people will check out of the system…won’t vote…think their voice doesn’t mean much…don’t take the time to become informed…think if they read something on a Blackberry or hear something on talk radio or talk TV that they’re somehow informed citizens.
There’s no guarantee that you keep a democracy, even if you have 200 years of experience.”