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Unusual Ad Charges Fla. Child-Welfare System Undermines Parents

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A Florida group that opposes the state's child-welfare policies promoted its cause this month with an advertisement that accuses state officials and child-welfare advocates of "kidnapping'' hundreds of children whose parents spank or scold them.

The Orlando-based Family Rights Committee Inc. took out a full-page ad, in the form of a cartoon, in 11 Florida newspapers and in The New York Times.

The cartoon, which has drawn sharp rebuttals from state officials and child-welfare advocates, depicts two legislators crafting child-abuse laws so vauge that "everyone will be guilty ... especially those who spank'' and imposing penalties so harsh that accused parents are denied due process and placed on a "black list'' for life.

It also implies that the Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services' definition of child abuse is designed to "undermine parental authority'' and includes anything from too much or too little supervision to a messy house or a hug. In addition, the agency is depicted as conspiring with the juvenile-justice system, politicians, and the counseling industry to take children from their homes for financial gain.

The ad also makes pointed allusions to "totalitarian movements'' and Hitler and depicts a Nazi concentration camp survivor saying, "I've seen this before.''

The Family Rights Committee was founded in 1989 by John Ostalkiewicz, a diamond importer who grew disenchanted with the child-welfare system after his personal assistant was "falsely accused of child abuse'' and faced numerous obstacles clearing her name, according to Dale Krazmien, a spokesman for the group.

Ms. Krazmien said the ad campaign cost $73,000 and was financed with contributions from supporters.

'Over the Line'

Rex Uberman, the director of state and local programs for the Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services, said that "many Floridians are frustrated with the child-protection system in this state,'' largely because they feel children need more protection.

But the group's cartoon, he said, "stepped over the line'' to evoke "emotional fear.''

"It doesn't have any basis in reality,'' he said.

He maintained, for example, that the state receives half a million child-abuse reports every year but removes children from their homes in less than 5 percent of the cases it handles. Of those, he said, no children were removed "beause of a simple spanking'' or for other reasons cited in the cartoon.

In a letter to the editor responding to the ad, Robert B. Williams, the secretary of the state agency, said it supports intensive counseling, parenting-education, child-care, and other services aimed at keeping families together.

He added that "this strident advertising could endanger children's lives by playing on people's fears without providing any concrete solutions to the very real problem of child abuse.''

"We are also concerned that lies and innuendo being spread by this group will make the already difficult job of child-abuse investigators even more dangerous,'' Mr. Williams said.

He added that the agency was "perplexed'' because the group ran the ad "at a time when H.R.S. is embracing reform.'' He noted that Gov. Lawton Chiles recently signed a bill that gives communities "more control over what we do and how we do it'' and has requested more funding for "family preservation'' programs.

"In the vast majority of cases, there is great reluctance to take children out of their homes,'' said Eleanor Weinstock, a state senator who chairs the chamber's Health and Rehabilitative Services Committee and who appears to be depicted as the legislator "Ellen Whinegrab'' in the cartoon.

Ms. Weinstock conceded that, despite safeguards, "there are still going to be slip-ups, and people once in a while will be charged when there is no basis for being charged.''

She added, however, that "it is still extremely worthwhile to do every
thing in a state's power to protect people who can't protect themselves.''

'Birth Pangs of Fascism'

The ad has also raised objections from groups offended by its allusions to Nazism.

Arthur Teitelbaum, the Southern area director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the group's Miami office received several calls from "persons who questioned the motivation of the sponsors and who were offended by the use of imagery related to the Holocaust.''

While the A.D.L. has no position on the Florida child-welfare agency's policies, he said, the ad "trivializes the Holocaust experience by analogizing it to H.R.S.'s treatment of the parents accused of child abuse.''

The Family Rights Committee issued a statement denying any direct comparison with the Holocaust. But it described the concentration-camp survivor in the ad as "a gentle, wise man'' who recognizes "the birth pangs of fascism'' and "warns us not to look the other way.''

The controversy over the ad comes at a time when child-welfare agencies nationwide are facing pressure to reform at the same time that their budgets are being cut and their caseloads are rising.

"There is no question that our safety net is in shreds,'' Mr. Williams of the Florida agency said. "Too many children are falling through.''

But, he added, "fingerpointing and distortions only divide us as a society at a time when we must work together, as partners, to save Florida's most endangered resource, our children.''

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