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Department of Children and Families looking out for neither

Lucy D. Hadi, secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families, (DCF) might be headed to the same place Jack Abramoff went Wednesday: jail.

In what the New York Times described as “a growing standoff” between the state of Florida and its judges, Florida’s judicial system has warned Florida’s state government that it might face “steep daily fines” if the transfer of severely mentally ill prisoners from jails to mental health care facilities does not improve. The number of beds in these facilities are limited – there are only 1,416 of them, according to the Times – so at least 300 mentally-ill prisoners have been left untreated and uncared for in jails that were not designed to house them. By Florida state law, such prisoners are to be transferred from jails to more appropriate facilities within 15 days of their commitment. According to the Times, 72 percent of the more than 300 prisoners awaiting beds in mental health facilities have been waiting longer than the acceptable 15 days.

DCF is responsible for moving mentally-ill prisoners from jails to hospitals, but according to judges, DCF not only has declined to seek adequate funding from the state legislature for more beds but also cut its own budget last year by $53 million – at a time when the state of Florida is running an $8 billion budget surplus.

The problem is being addressed throughout the state. Judges in Hillsborough, Miami-Dade, Broward and Pinellas counties have all threatened the state with fines.

“It strikes me that ultimately (the state of Florida has) contempt issues,” Judge Frank A. Shepherd said to the Times.

DCF argues that it cannot be held in contempt. It says it had no way to predict a sharp rise in mental illness commitments this year. It complains that there are simply no beds. It did ask for beds, after all – two dozen of them.

The “arrogance” – as Judge Crockett Farnell of the Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court described it – shown by the state of Florida in ignoring the court’s demands and failing in its duty to protect the mentally ill criminals from themselves almost doesn’t merit comment, except for the fact that there are victims.

A schizophrenic inmate gouged out his own eye after weeks of waiting for a hospital bed in Clearwater. Two mentally ill inmates in Escambia County Jail died after being subdued by guards. There are more horrific stories of self-mutilation and suicide attempts.

These inmates do not have their mental faculties, so it is morally imperative that they are cared for. Florida’s state government and DCF ought to be ashamed.

The government – state, local and federal – is supposed to work as a whole to protect its citizens. It has many other duties, but that is first and foremost. Once more, government has gotten in the way of itself, and citizens are suffering because of it.

What’s worse, those suffering have no means by which to treat or otherwise protect themselves, be it from themselves or (as is the case now) the government sworn to protect them.