Tallahassee -- Children and Families director Jerry Regier is using his fundamental Oklahoma roots to make employees of Florida's embattled agency participate in mandatory character-training sessions. Regier has contracted with Oklahoma City-based Character Training Institute. The nonprofit company, with direct ties to evangelist Bill Gothard, is providing the curriculum for some 1,750 agency workers in the Orlando region, which also includes Brevard County.
Regier made the material available to former Oklahoma deputy and current Orlando chief David Dennis.
DCF employees were not uniformly happy July 25 to arrive at work for a one-hour lecture on "Dependability," backed up with laminated pocket guides, handouts, Character First! banners, and even cardboard cutouts of SpongeBob SquarePants and Minnie Mouse on the walls.
A state purchase order shows DCF paid $8,305 for the training materials.
"It was rather insulting," said Paulette Berry, a DCF economic self-sufficiency worker at the agency's Titusville service center and a 13-year employee, who bridled at being handed a lesson on dependability. "These are characteristics we already have!"
Co-worker Cathy Carr would much rather see the agency use its money for raises.
"It's supposed to be morale-boosting, but everybody was furious," Carr said. She has a four-year college degree, has worked 10 years with the agency and earns less than $30,000 a year.
Dennis employed the same Character First! program as Regier's top deputy at the Oklahoma Department of Juvenile Affairs in the late 1990s. Dennis is on annual leave and unavailable for comment, DCF spokesman Bob Brooks said.
Nevertheless, Brooks said he was familiar with the Character First! project, briefed on it months ago by Regier after the DCF secretary urged all his district directors to begin the employee training.
"It's a pretty impressive course," Brooks said. "Seems to me, it's something just about everybody needs more of.
"There's really nothing that incorporates any religious ideology. It is more along the lines of promoting the appropriate use of some character traits that I think can be in short supply today . . . ," he said.
"This department is not going to apologize for promoting values that are often in short supply, and that's in society in general," he said. "Anything we can do to promote stronger values benefits everybody in the long run."
Character First! is no stranger to controversy.
Developed a decade ago by an Oklahoma industrialist, it is a secularized version of the teachings of evangelist Bill Gothard and continues to be endorsed by Gothard's Institute of Basic Life Principles.
IRS records show the chairman of the Oak Brook, Ill.-based faith network, with 2002 assets of $82.3 million, is Thomas Hill, president of the Character Training Institute. Gothard's 49 "Commands of Christ" correlate to the 49 "character traits" taught by Character First!
The Character First! program is now used in more than 700 businesses, dozens of cities, and 2,000 schools, including the Liberty City Charter School co-founded by Gov. Jeb Bush.
Among Gothard's more controversial beliefs is that a man's mission is to develop a clear purpose in life and a woman's role is to support that purpose.
The 49 "characters" taught in the Character First! program do not mention God, nor women at home, but they do echo Gothard's own belief in obedience to authority.
For instance, the "Dependability" lesson given DCF workers last week urged them to do their jobs "even when it means unexpected sacrifice."
Among the object lessons DCF employees were presented was Elbert Hubbard's 1899 essay celebrating a lieutenant who set off on foot in Cuba to deliver a presidential message to a military leader in hiding, without asking how or why. In it, Hubbard at length bemoans office clerks who question their job assignments.
That authoritarian viewpoint caused Hernando County officials last year to reject the Character First! program for its employees, and caused controversy in Detroit's public school system three years ago.
Regier was brought on board by Bush in August 2002 amid national scorn for Florida's loss of 393 children in state custody, including 5-year-old Rilya Wilson in Miami.
Regier, formerly the founder of the conservative Family Research Council, had swept clean an equally troubled Juvenile Affairs Department in Oklahoma for Gov. Frank Keating, hiring investigators who tracked down scores of phantom employees on the payroll.
Regier also introduced Character First! to Oklahoma's juvenile affairs workers, stopping short at requiring children in state custody to also undergo the training.
Gothard also espouses wilderness camps for juvenile delinquents, a belief Regier put into practice in Oklahoma.
His Florida appointment immediately became controversial for Regier's religious activism, including his name on a 1989 essay that promoted spanking of children and keeping women out of the workplace. While in Oklahoma, Regier also headed Keating's state office for religious organizations, and Keating's Marriage Initiative aimed at reducing divorce (also another central Gothard mission).
Nearly a year after Regier's arrival in Florida, DCF's core problems remain unfixed, critics said.
"I'm not sure we need to preach morals . . . I'm still concerned about more than 500 kids missing and the fact that there's been a 76 percent increase in the number of kids lost since December," said Sen. Skip Campbell, D-Fort Lauderdale, and one of Regier's top Florida critics.
He called Character First! emphasis to workers on respecting authority "the antithesis of a good employee relationship."
The agency in April reported it could not locate 847 children for a monthly checkup, another 273 were classified as runaways, and 67 were officially absconded or abducted.
Though Regier at first said the child welfare agency needed to hire more workers and pay them significantly better, he acquiesced to much smaller increases proposed by Bush.
In June, following state budget cuts, Regier laid off 85 DCF workers, including 12 in the Orlando district, and eliminated another 78 open positions statewide. However, he promises to add 376 caseworkers in January.
Meanwhile, Florida schools are required by the Legislature to begin character training of students by 2004. Among the programs public schools are instructed, by state law, to consider is Character First!
It moved into the Oklahoma public school system in 1997.