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'Teens-Only Town Hall' Introduces Agency Heads To Their Teen Advisers

A dozen Florida high-schoolers are embarking on a yearlong stint as advisers to government agency leaders on children’s issues. The Florida Youth Commission met their state-official counterparts for the first time this week, and they brought some tough questions.

On Tuesday, the Florida Cabinet Meeting Room was full of teenagers. Ted Granger, president of the United Way of Florida, is the man behind a weeklong advocacy event called Children’s Week at the Capitol. He introduced the 2013 Youth Commission, the twelve teenagers sitting at the front of the room.

“They’re here today for the first time, and they will be with you for the next 12 months working with you to try to identify and provide counsel on issues that are important to them,” Granger said.

Now in its third year, the Youth Commission will be working alongside the heads of the agencies that affect children’s lives most directly. Secretary of the Department of Children and Families, David Wilkins, head of the Department of Juvenile Justice, Wansley Walters, and others are seated facing the youth commissioners.

Town hall moderator Matthew Morse, a senior at Tallahassee’s Lincoln High School, said, “Although unable to be elected to office, youth have meaningful contributions and insight regarding the issues that affect them. Twelve teenagers from across Florida have been selected to represent the youth of this state.”

The youth commissioners have all brought a question to pose to the agency heads, who, collectively, make up the Florida Children and Youth Cabinet. The Cabinet was created so the agencies could coordinate better and make sure they’re not duplicating services.

Morgan Siskind, a Youth Commissioner from Weston, asked why there aren’t more substance abuse treatment programs geared toward young people.

“The problems of substance abuse and mental illness have been identified. Programs to treat these issues have been successful. My concern is how to deliver these solutions to more teenagers who need them. My question to you is, ‘How do you plan on achieving this?’” Siskind said.

She told the Cabinet she’s the cofounder of a club called SAFE, which raises awareness of mental health issues.

“Well, first of all, I would like to hire you,” Secretary Wilkins said.

His answer to her question: Historically, the state has provided substance abuse and mental health services for low income adults but not specifically targeted them to young people. Last year, the state shifted its strategy toward getting those programs involved in screening kids coming into the child welfare system.

And, Wilkins said, they need more funding. “We still are woefully inadequate on providing a holistic array of services, and we need to do more,” he said. “This legislative session, we are asking for an additional $5 million to focus just on children and parents of the child welfare system for substance abuse-mental health services.”

During the hour-long town hall meeting, other youth commissioners asked about early learning programs, sex trafficking, autism screening and other issues.

The conversation between the agency heads and young people will continue throughout the next year as the Cabinet seeks the Commission’s input.