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State News

Jack Levine Honored for Lifetime of Child Advocacy

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wfsu.org

Children’s Week in Tallahassee is Jan. 26 through 31. Among the events will be Monday evening’s (Jan. 27) of the Lawton and Rhea Chiles Advocacy Award. This year’s honoree has been standing up for the state’s kids for more than 40 years and his name is Jack Levine.

Jack Levine’s first and perhaps most far-reaching act of advocacy happened shortly after he first moved to Florida in 1978. He got a job teaching delinquent kids for the old state agency called HRS – Health and Rehabilitative Services – and in response to rumors of abuse coming from the agency’s Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, he paid the facility an unannounced and unauthorized visit.

“I saw kids who were sleeping on slabs in their lockup,” he recalled. “The smell was horrible! The scene was horrible! And I got nervous because I didn’t know what to do with this information. But I had to tell somebody so I came back and told my superiors. It was in the same department and they looked at me like, ‘What were you doing there? Why did you go there?’ It was a 50 mile trip but it felt like a century.”

But Levine persisted. The infamous reformatory was finally closed in 2011. Levine went on to head Voices for Florida’s Children and later founded the 4Generations Institute. His unrelenting focus has been on kids and their families.

“We’re a state whose women and girls give birth to 620 babies a day and there are no days off,” he observed. “So when we’re comparative to other states that don’t have that many births – and I use the analogy that ‘North Dakota doesn’t change much – and our diversities, it’s a phenomenon to make progress.”

Levine believes in celebrating the state’s successes as well as pointing out its childcare deficiencies.

“Our adoptions are a phenomenal reality through the good work of professionals, guardians ad litem and judges,” he said. “We have now exceeded our adoption goals better than any state in the nation and these are children who need forever homes.”

He’s also delighted that Florida is doing ever more for its post-foster children.

“And we’ve got programs in Florida to get them ready for college now. Very few states in the nation even think of their foster kids as college-worthy. And we have through a group called Educate Tomorrow, have 5,000 enrolled for free tuition and a stipend.”

Levine has also been a persistent cheerleader for the Children’s Service Councils, which are now in 9 Florida counties, although Levine quickly points out the idea is by no means new.

“The earliest was 1946 in Pinellas County,” he related. “The Juvenile Welfare Board was the old name but they still maintain that as the label. Now we have a surge of counties talking about it. Leon County is most likely going to ballot in 2020. I’m predicting 4 to 6 more in the next 2 to 4 years.”

For many years Levine helped nominate candidates for the annual Lawton and Rhea Chiles Advocacy Award. But he was not asked to participate in this year’s award process. His reaction soon changed from puzzlement to stunned surprise.

“When I heard that I was next up for the Lawton and Rhea Chiles Advocacy Award, I harkened back to ways that he mentored me and many others. And I realized that what he created was a positive path for using our hearts and our heads for the betterment of children and the betterment of their parents.”

And as he accepts the honor named after his favorite mentor, Levine sees himself as a stand-in for children’s advocates all over Florida.

“I don’t view this as the ‘Jack Levine Award,’” he insisted. “I view this as the collective for all of the voices of all the constituencies who do the work every day. When their alarm clock rings in the morning, they are actually taking care of real people. While of course I’m honored and my family is thrilled I really want to hold up a mirror to all of the many, countless dedicated professionals, volunteers, family members of all stages and ages of life to realize this their recognition, too.”

The awards dinner happens the evening of Monday, Jan. 27 at FSU’s University Center Club.