Last month, the Children's Trust, an independently run group funding kids' programs through a property tax collected in Miami-Dade, announced it had approved dishing out $90 million to 88 organizations that provide after-school services, summer programs, and other assistance to 10,237 boys and girls.
In a statement released March 23, the trust — founded by former Miami Herald publisher Dave Lawrence and overseen by a board that includes a judge, a state representative, and a county commissioner, among many others — proclaimed "the funding will benefit established institutions as well as grassroots, community-based organizations to provide the best services available to all children, and particularly in neighborhoods with the highest rates of poverty."
The reality is the trust is not helping many of the poorest kids in Miami-Dade. Thousands of African-American children in Liberty City and Overtown are being largely ignored. Of the 88 groups approved for funding, only 13 are based in African-American neighborhoods. Those organizations account for just $5.1 million of the $25.1 million in after-school and summer care funding the trust is doling out in 2015.
When I reached out to Children's Trust spokeswoman Emily Cardenas to respond to my criticisms, she accused me of being "incendiary" and "biased." Last year, African-American kids represented 29 percent of the children being served by the trust, "slightly more than the 27 percent of African-American children living in poverty," she says. "Many community-based organizations headquartered in the African-American community have been awarded grants by the Children's Trust."
The reality is that although the trust is funded by taxpayer dollars and tells the outside world it's unbiased, the place is rife with politics. Case in point: One recipient of Trust dollars is the Richmond Perrine Optimist Club, where Miami-Dade County Commissioner Dennis Moss has been the executive director "for more than 25 years," according to his own website.
I wonder why other Optimist Clubs in depressed black neighborhoods don't receive the same consideration. This year, the trust gave Richmond Perrine $492,918 to run programs at three sites for 135 kids. There are Optimist Clubs in Miami's black neighborhoods that provide the same level of care as Richmond Perrine provides. I am the founder of the Liberty City Optimist Club, which is applying for Children's Trust funds that have not yet been awarded. We'll see what happens. But this is not just about my group.
Consider, for instance, the Overtown Optimist Club, which serves more children than Alonzo Mourning's Overtown Youth Center. The former Miami Heat center's group received $284,074 from the Trust this year to serve 180 kids. Yet the Overtown Youth Center doesn't want to work with the Optimist Club, which desperately needs a second gym for the overflow of kids. The Trust people don't know that because they don't have ears to the street like I do.
The trust also gave New Jerusalem Development Corporation $680,829 to operate three sites for 135 kids in the Liberty City area. Yet New Jersusalem is located in the Little River neighborhood of Miami, and it subcontracts its after-school programs to corner churches in Liberty City.
Or how about the Belafonte-TACOLCY Center, a social service organization that last year received $500,000 from the Children's Trust. Former executive director Taj Anton Brown left there last year after allegations that he had spent center money on rental cars, gasoline, and hotel rooms. Though no funding is being recommended this year, the scandal raises questions about the Trust's oversight.
And talk about politics. The Trust started its own political action committee in 2006 to persuade taxpayers to keep it alive. More than $500,000 in campaign funds were paid to a company run by national pollster Sergio Bendixen to buy ads to make sure the public passed the Trust's big budget.
Cardenas notes that the Trust didn't fund the campaign with taxpayer dollars. Founder Lawrence started the PAC, and employees who worked on the campaign were required to take a leave of absence. Cardenas (who herself was paid $3,550 by the PAC while on leave) insists politics plays no role in the Trust's decisions. "We take special care to dedicate the majority of our resources to the children and families who need it most," she says, "at the same time remembering that we pledged in two referendum campaigns to reach everyone possible in our community."
You may remember those campaigns. Voters approved the idea in 2002 and then reauthorized the Trust in 2008. These days, homeowners pay an average of $45 per year. Yet those homeowners have no say in how the money is spent or who serves on the board. Members are appointed by a bevy of groups and individuals, from the governor to the county commission.
In addition, Cardenas says, the organizations her group chooses to support are judged by past performance and financial stability, among other criteria. There is a complex process that involves "a lot of layers to shield against influence," she says. Her aim, and that of her organization, is to ensure that children have access to the best programs and services available.
However, the Trust's supposed safeguards often disqualify black youth organizations before they can even apply. For instance, before even submitting a funding proposal, some groups must spend thousands of dollars on an audit that could go to hiring coaches or buying snacks. That sounds reasonable until you consider that state and federal governments rarely require audits for grants under $500,000.
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The bottom line is that the Trust is not doing enough to help African-American children, who face more than just poverty. Every day, they wake up knowing they could die from gun violence, whether they are innocent bystanders or fall into a life of crime. Way before the trust existed, my parents had access to after-school programs for my brothers and me. We had a place to go that kept us out of trouble and harm's way. Without after-school and summer programs in inner-city neighborhoods, we don't have a valuable resource to keep our children safe.
Miami-Dade's African-American county commissioners, school board members, and other politicians who appoint board members to the trust have to wake up. They have the power to force the trust to seek out more community groups that can help needy parents take care of their children. Instead of spending money for presentations and reports to prove it's doing a good job, the Children's Trust should invest in working with real community activists and stakeholders to identify the organizations that can best help kids.
Follow Luke on Twitter: @unclelukereal1.