Doug Sessions, President and CEO of the Ounce of Prevention Fund of Florida, is this week’s featured guest. April is Child Abuse Prevention Month, so we discuss Florida’s efforts to prevent child abuse and neglect, and how you can help.
Prior to working for the Ounce of Prevention Fund of Florida, Doug worked for former Florida Governor Reubin Askew. He also worked for George Steinbrenner in a role much like the one George Costanza on Seinfeld had with the New York Yankees. In our conversation, Doug shares stories about both of these jobs and how they led him to the Ounce of Prevention Fund of Florida, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping Florida’s at-risk children and families.
The Ounce of Prevention Fund of Florida wants you to know that everyone plays a role preventing child abuse and neglect. Simple, everyday actions like teaching new parents about healthy child development, donating goods and services to organizations that serve families and advocating for children’s causes can all help support families so they can thrive. And while the focus of the month is on helping families before problems arise, you should also know how to report abuse and neglect if you suspect it. Make a confidential report by calling the Florida Abuse Hotline at 1-800-96-ABUSE.
Chris Cate:Welcome to the Fluent in Floridian podcast, featuring the Sunshine State’s brightest leaders, talking about the issues most important to the people of Florida and its millions of weekly visitors. I’m your host, Chris Cate. In this episode, created by SalterMitchell PR, our guest is Doug Sessions, the President and CEO of Ounce of Prevention Fund of Florida, a non-profit dedicated to helping Florida’s at-risk children and families. This month is Child Abuse Prevention Month, so we’ll be talking about Florida’s effort to prevent child abuse and neglect, and how you can help. Doug will also how working for the Yankees and Governor Askew led him to the Ounce of Prevention fund. You can hear it all right now.
Doug, thanks so much for being on the show. April is Child Abuse Prevention Month, and your organization, Ounce of Prevention Fund of Florida, is helping lead the awareness campaign. So I’d like to start by asking: What is the primary message that you’re trying to communicate to Floridians right now about child abuse prevention?
Doug Sessions: One of the sessions in our office here is the Florida Chapter of Prevent Child Abuse America. We are Prevent Child Abuse Florida. The purpose for the chapter is to make readily-available materials and services to help families and service providers deal with child abuse prevention. We think that the elimination or the prevention of child abuse is of the highest order, because the children of this country are our future. If they are raised in loving and sustainable families, it makes them much better citizens down the road. Our particular chapter here runs in every April in the Child Abuse Prevention Month, the Pinwheels for Prevention campaign. You’ve probably seen them, they’re all over the state now. There’s these little blue and silver pinwheels that represent all of our childhoods. Probably when you were a kid, you ran around with pinwheels and watch them spin. We think that if we can bring that message to as many people in Florida as possible, we’re going to help eliminate child abuse in this state, and hopefully, in this country.
Chris Cate:If you see something harmful occurring to a child, you should obviously say something. But I’m not sure that everyone knows who to contact or what happens after that contact is made. Can you tell the listeners who they should contact if they do something, and what’s actually done when child abuse is reported?
Doug Sessions:Well, there’s a central registry in the state of Florida in the Department of Children and Families called the Child Abuse Hotline. There’s enormous amount of mandatory reporters. We are mandatory reporters in our organization: teachers, mailmen. If you think about the routes that mailmen take all over cities, they have access to visibility as much as anybody. That list goes on and on, of folks that have mandatory responsibility for reporting. But the general person on the street, if they suspect child abuse, they can certainly call the hotline. Or they can talk with the parents or policemen in their community, or whatever services is available at that particular point in time. It’s a hard subject to deal with, because people don’t want to accuse other people of child abuse. But it happens, and we have to be aware of it, and we have to be prepared to present that kind of information, if in fact we witness it.
That’s one of the things that the campaign provides: We do enormous amount of literature and PSAs and radio announcements that bring child abuse and the attention to child abuse needs to the fore. The more we can do that, and that’s what the pinwheels actually signify: If you see a pinwheel, you know that that’s for the prevention of child abuse.
Chris Cate:Are there any statistics or facts about child abuse that would surprise people?
Doug Sessions:I think the sheer numbers surprise people the most. Like, and some of our child abuse prevention programs here, we serve just, easily, in the thousands. We probably serve 15, 16,000 families a year, helping them learn how to raise their children, so that those children are raised properly. The development of the child is essential to the long-range possibilities of that child as it gets older. That 13,000 families, that’s like 20, 27, 30,000 children a year. We’re a private organization doing that on behalf of the state. The State of Florida and the Department of Children and Families has these programs all over the state. They’re out there, they just need to be taken advantage of, if it occurs.
Chris Cate:How does Florida compare to other states, as it relates to the acts of child abuse that we’re seeing here, or even, how families are supported?
Doug Sessions:I think we’re probably in the top tier of states that pay attention to child abuse. I think every state does. It’s just a function of the state’s ability to put those resources to work against it. When Healthy Families, for instance, was started in 1998, that was the first statewide program for the prevention of child abuse that existed in Florida. There were organizations that would do it individually, but the state had never went on its own to go out there and try to help bring those numbers down. When, that was at the end of Governor Chiles’ administration, the start of Governor Bush’s administration. They both looked at those numbers that coming into the hotline, were just astounded. They were huge numbers, and one of the things they wanted to do was to reduce that number. The only way you reduce that number is to reduce child abuse. So that’s what brought Healthy Families into being.
It has grown significantly since then. I think that first budget was like, $10 million. Now it’s $28 million annually. So the efforts there, Florida, I’m sure it compare. I don’t have those numbers readily available. But I think Florida compares favorably in the top tier of the states that really pay attention to child abuse.
Chris Cate:So we’ve talked about what happens when we see child abuse. But you all are really invested in helping families before that child abuse ever even occurs. Can you give our listeners an idea of what you’re doing to try to anticipate those needs, and to help families?
Doug Sessions:That’s right, Chris. I think we have to go back to our core mission, and that is prevention of all of these bad things, and child abuse being at the top of the list. IF you’re aware of a family, they may be struggling in your neighborhood, offer to babysit for them one night. Families are under tremendous stress when new babies come along. You don’t get a guidebook on how to raise a baby. You have to, it’s almost like, by the seat of your pants. So any help that the neighbors can do, you can donate goods and then services and money. Businesses can have family-friendly policies. Mentoring, yeah, there’s mentoring opportunities everywhere in schools all over Florida, that people can get involved in. And help teach healthy child development. They’re easy things. There’s not, it’s not a lot of rocket science involved in that. But it’s getting past a barrier that may be keeping you from doing that.
We have a program her at the Ounce of Prevention Fund called Circle of Parents, and that we’re all over the state. That gives a central location for parents that need help with learning how to raise their children. They can come, and they’re with other parents. It’s a peer group, so there’s no pressure. You share ideas, and you share your foibles, and you try to help each other along the way. You could always go to the website, preventchildabusefl.org, for any help you might need as well. It’s important that we all understand that these problems are prevalent throughout the state, and we’re all there to lend a helping hand when we can. Everybody can help. You don’t need to be rich. You don’t need to be terribly smart. You just have to have it in your heart that you know that you want every child to have the opportunity to grow up to be nurtured and loved in that childhood, and to grow up to have a very meaningful and successful life.
Chris Cate:You find that, parents under a lot of stress, there’s a direct correlation, that that’s one of those indicators of potential child abuse environments?
Doug Sessions:Absolutely. One of the things we hear the most, particularly in the more dire episodes, particularly when it comes to Shaken Baby Syndrome, just because a baby may be colicky, it may be sick, and the baby just cries. And if a parent doesn’t know how to help that child through that episode, there’s an opportunity for that parent or that caregiver, or whoever it may be, to abuse that child. That’s the kind of thing we try to teach over above, so that we don’t get involved in any of that. It’s a horrible situation. People don’t really mean it. That kind of thought is not in your heart. You’re just trying to figure out a way to make that kid quit screaming. And we’ve all seen. I mean, kids can throw tantrums from time to time, and parents get really frustrated, and the stress level just goes up tremendously. And all we want to do is to be able to provide them the opportunity to learn how to deal with that. That’s what we’re trying to do all over Florida.
Chris Cate:For listeners who don’t know much about Ounce of Prevention Fund of Florida, in what was does your organization help Florida families year-round?
Doug Sessions:Well, we were formed in 1989, by then-Governor Martinez. He asked a group of business leaders and civic leaders to come together and give him the ability to have a private, not-for-profit organization that could identify, fund, and evaluate programs that would help families raise their children as appropriately as possible. That was almost 30 years ago now, and we have continued to do that through any variety of programs. We’ve had, in addition to Child Abuse Prevention and Healthy Families, we housed, at one point, the Commission on Marriage, Commission on Responsible Fatherhood, all kinds of programs that dealt with education and economic well-being. And we continue to do so. Our board makeup in 1989 is very similar to what it is today. We still had the same Chairman, the same Secretary, and the same Treasurer.
Chris Cate:What kind of support do you find at-risk children and their families need the most?
Doug Sessions:I think, if I had to really zero in on one particular cause, I think we always look at poverty as being a major cause of the proper development of children. We’ve seen, in this state, income inequality, education inequality, social inequality, grow to staggering numbers now. We have a county just to the west of us that has the highest poverty rate in the state of Florida. That’s within almost shouting distance of the State Capitol. So we have to deal with those issues, and it’s something that, it’s like a global concern. It’s just isolated to Florida. But we have to deal with it, because if we can’t give everybody an equal opportunity to grow in this state, and to grow in all of those manners, all those fashions, then we’re going to continue to see children that don’t have the ability to support themselves as they grow older.
Chris Cate:I know you can’t say any names, but do you have a story you can share where you’ve seen first-hand how a little bit of support can make a big difference in a family?
Doug Sessions:We had a program in Cuba. This is one of the best stories I’ve had in my experience here, that dealt with a lack of housing, and a lack of education and supports. We did a joint venture with the Department of Housing and Urban Development of the United States Department of HUD. They had an old housing unit that was being unused. We talked them into putting some extra money into it, and they separated it off from the general population of that housing community down there, made it very attractive. And then we brought in families, particularly of single mothers, that needed help raising their children and raising their families. We helped them find jobs and we helped them find medical homes. We had one lady that graduated from that program and five or six years later, she finished her PhD.
Doug Sessions:She went on to great, great things and I think she lives in Connecticut now, the last I heard.
Chris Cate:Where does the name Ounce of Prevention Fund come from?
Doug Sessions:Ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Chris Cate:Oh, okay.
Doug Sessions:I think, I don’t know who said it, probably Ben Franklin. But when we first came into being in the late 80s, we mimicked a program that Governor Martinez brought down from Illinois that had already started, there called the Ounce of Prevention. We talked to them and they said, “We’d love y’all to have our name, too.” So we took that name from them.
Chris Cate:So how did you first become involved with the Ounce of Prevention Fund?
Doug Sessions:The Chairman, Wayne Davis, from Jacksonville then, called me. We’re old friends, and he called and said, I was living in Jacksonville when he called and said, “We need a new Executive Director at this foundation I help fund, and I want you to take the job.” And I didn’t know anything about social services. But I did have a good background in government. We knew that we had to figure out ways to fund it. I came over and visited with him and the rest of the board, and they talked me into doing it. I thought I’d stay five or six years, and now it’s almost 24 years later.
Chris Cate:Prior to Ounce of Prevention Fund, I know you worked, you told me, for the New York Yankees. Can you tell me, what was your role with the Yankees?
Doug Sessions:I had met George Steinbrenner a few years before, through some lobbying I did for him at one time, for the Yankees. He asked me to kind of work for him. When the Askew administration ended, I worked for Governor Askew prior to that, and I’ve always been a big Yankee fan. So it was like I’d died and gone to Heaven for a couple of years. I was there three years, and always a big baseball fan, and always a big Yankee fan, so it was really a, it was a great experience.
Chris Cate:I like how you described your role as kind of the George Costanza sort of role on the Yankees, for people who have seen Seinfeld.
Doug Sessions:That was me. The only difference is, Mr. Steinbrenner, he was always a different bird. He was very smart, and he was a great humanitarian. Most people don’t realize that, but he had a tremendous temper, and he would fire people in a heartbeat. Heck, when I was there, Billy Martin was the Manager, and he’d fired Billy about four times a week, sometimes.
Chris Cate:Yeah, that was a really contentious time with the Yankees. Yeah.
Doug Sessions:But equally, I’ll tell you a real quick story, a funny story. I got a call one day from a marketing person, and she said, “I represent Miller beer, and we want to do a Miller Lite commercial with Mr. Steinbrenner and Billy Martin.” So I said, “Well, I’ll go check.” And I visited with George and he said, “I’m not really inclined to do that.” Then he started thinking, he said, “Well, are they going to pay me to do it?” And he said, “I’m sure they will.” He says, “Well, if they will take whatever they’re going to pay me and give it to this,” there was an orphanage in the Bronx. And he said, “If they will give it to,” I think it was called St. Mary’s, “I’ll talk Billy into doing it, and we’ll do it.”
So I called the lady back and I said, “Here’s the deal.” And she said, “Well, that’s great. We’ll do it in a heartbeat.” And they gave, I think it was like, $50,000 to this orphanage.
Doug Sessions:So that’s the kind of, George was always a step ahead of people, that a lot of folks got the wrong impression. Because he was so visible, and he was so vocal about a lot of things he did, but he had a heart of gold.
Chris Cate:Did you have any experience working with his kids, who are now running the Yankees?
Doug Sessions:I did. They were all, I think the oldest one was maybe 13 or 14 then. The boys that are now the General Manager were probably, they were 4 or 5, something like that. They were relatively young. This was a long time ago.
Chris Cate:You mentioned you worked for Reubin Askew, Governor Askew as well. What was it like working in his administration?
Doug Sessions:Yeah, it was fabulous. We were all young, and we were all ambitious, and we all had these great, progressive ideas. Governor Askew gave us the forum to carry a lot of those out. The Governor was behind judicial reform, Article 5, back then, and the Sunshine Amendment. He had ideas that, he thought his ideas and worked them out, while most people just thought ideas and forgot about them. He was an exceptional governor.
Chris Cate:Do you have any memories of working with the Governor that stand out the most in your mind?
Doug Sessions:Well, it was almost like a flash. I was there for almost six years, and you think back on it, it almost seems like about six minutes. It just went by so fast. We all had to lobby the legislature for whatever our, we had departmental responsibilities. We had to work the legislative process, and that’s where I learned most of the stuff I know about Florida government. One of the really neat stories he told where he was invited by the State Department to go to Cape Canaveral then, to see a space launch. They had, Prince and Princesses of Spain was going to be there, Sofía and I can’t remember his name.
Anyhow, he was sitting, the Governor was sitting in like, the B section in the bleachers. The guy from the State Department came and he said, “Okay, Governor, we’re going to take you over there to meet the Prince of Spain.” He was the King Apparent, and he gave the Governor a whole list of things he had to, what he had to say and how he approached him. He got there, and everything went well. About six months later, he got a call again. He said, “Governor, we want to come down and formally welcome the King of Jordan to a space launch and to Florida.” So the Governor agreed and he went down to have the space launch, and again, he was in two or three bleachers over, and they came and got him.
The guy from the State Department got way in front of him, and the Governor didn’t know how to address the King of Jordan. He said, “Well, should I call him Your Majesty or Your Highness or Your Royal Highness or Your Royal Majesty or whatever?” He said, by the time, he looked up and he was looking in the face of King Hussein. He looked up and all he could say was, “Hi, King, how are you?” But that’s just, that was the kind of man Askew was. He was very humble. He was very genuine. And without a doubt, the most ethical person I’ve ever know in my life.
Chris Cate:How do you see government in Tallahassee right now working differently maybe than during the Askew administration? Are there big differences, or is it essentially the same?
Doug Sessions: Well, the biggest difference, it’s like, it’s different and it’s the same. The biggest difference was, back in the 70s, the entire legislature was Democratic. The Democratic Party had a stronghold on the state of Florida. It’s obviously it’s since changed. But we’ve seen it go through strong leanings to the Democratic side, and then kind of a half-and-half. And now, it’s strong leanings to the Republican side. And you had the same problems. They don’t go away. The same problems are there, and the same issues. It’s how you address policy, and how you address, particularly appropriations, as to how things work out in that process now. There’s, the camaraderie is different. Back in the 70s and 80s, legislators seemed to enjoy each other’s company more than they do today. It’s become more of a job than a citizen legislature like it was back then, I think.
Chris Cate:Well, I always close with the same final four questions at the end of every interview, the first being: Who is a Florida leader who you admire? And it could be someone from the past or present.
Doug Sessions:Well, it does without saying, from my. And what I’ve told you already, Reubin Askew was at the top of that list. The, probably of all of the people I’ve know in my life, he was intellectually at the top of the list. He was ethically at the top of the list. And a good father. He was an outstanding man. Prior to him, Roy Collins was one of the best governors Florida ever had. Jeb Bush was a great governor. I think Rick Scott’ll go down as doing some good things for the state of Florida. You can find good stuff in almost every leadership role the state’s ever had. Same thing goes with legislative leaders: Phil Lewis back in, was President of the Senate. I think Bill Galvano coming up now as the next President’s going to be an outstanding President. There’s just a lot of people in the state of Florida that’s done wonderful stuff. But far and away, and I’m obviously very biased, but Reubin Askew was just an outstanding guy,
Chris Cate:What is something in Florida, whether it’s an issue or just a person, place, or thing that you think deserves more attention than what it’s getting right now?
Doug Sessions:Well, I think I’d get back to that education and income inequality that we see in the state. Overcoming as best we can, poverty and the lack of education I think is going to make wonders for the state. We need to get back onto strengthening public education. Because I think that’s the quickest venue for getting us to where we need to be. You can overcome a lot of things with quality education. That’s why public education is so important in Florida.
Chris Cate:Where is a favorite Florida place for you to visit?
Doug Sessions:Oh, gosh. There’s tons of them. I love, my wife and I used to go the Keys a lot. We always enjoyed to go down and sailing and having a good time down there. I’ve spent so many times at Disney with our children and our grandchildren, that I could probably not see it again for the rest of my life and be very happy about it. But Disney is a wonderful place. It’s just fun, it’s always fun to go to new places over on the west coast, starting in Anna Maria and working your back around to 30A and Seaside and those places. I’m an Atlantic Beach kid. I grew up in Jacksonville, so Atlantic Beach, Florida is one of the neatest beaches in the State of Florida, but most people don’t know about. It’s like an old New England beach.
Chris Cate:Mm-hmm (affirmative). And finally, what is your favorite Florida sports team?
Doug Sessions:Oh, the Florida State Seminoles. I was in graduate school there. My wife is a graduate. If I said anything else, she’d probably through me out of the house.
Chris Cate:Great. Well, I appreciate you taking time to be on the show.
Doug Sessions:It was fun. I enjoyed it. Thank you.
Chris Cate:Thanks for listening to the Fluent in Floridian podcast. This show is Executive Produced by April Salter, with additional support provided by Heidi Otway and the team at SalterMitchell PR. If you need help telling your Florida story, SalterMitchell PR has you covered, by offering issues management, crisis communications, social media, advocacy, and media relations assistance. You can learn more about SalterMitchell PR at SalterMitchellPR.com. You can also learn more about the Fluent in Floridian podcast and listen to every episode of the show at FluentInFloridian.com, or by searching for the show using your favorite podcast app. Have a great day.