Local Obituaries

The woman who changed how disabled people are treated, Marcia Beach, has died

Broward Circuit Court Felony Drug Court Judge Marcia Beach speaks in support of drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs during a Broward County budget hearing.
Broward Circuit Court Felony Drug Court Judge Marcia Beach speaks in support of drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs during a Broward County budget hearing. Miami Herald File

At the height of her political powers, then-Broward County Commissioner Marcia Beach stunned the county’s government leadership: She quit.

It was October 1985. As chairwoman of the commission four years earlier, Beach had steered Broward through a withering tax revolt and recall effort. Now, her reelection seemed assured.

But Beach had just begun law school — a decision she made to ensure she earned enough to protect her teenage daughter, Shannon, who had been born with a devastating disability. And, at 40, Beach had been unable to juggle the demands of law school and public life.

It was the kind of decision Beach would make again and again: Shannon came first, as did the millions of Floridians who were like her.

“The reason Marcia went to law school was to change the system, because of Shannon. Always because of Shannon,” said Fort Lauderdale attorney Juliette Lippman, who worked with Beach on several class-action lawsuits at what was then called the Advocacy Center for Persons with Disabilities.

“She was a warrior for people with disabilities. She never took no for an answer. She made us redefine the universe in which we operated, making sure it was always the person who was seen first, not the disability.”

Beach died of a probable heart attack Saturday at an independent living facility in Lakeland, where she had moved last year with her husband, Cecil, the retired founder of Broward’s library system. She was 71.

A native of Polk County, her retirement to Lakeland was a return home.

In an email to the Broward judiciary Saturday, Chief Judge Peter Weinstein called Beach “a wonderful lady who contributed so much to our community.”

In nearly a half-century of public service, Beach worked as a county commissioner, circuit court judge, and leader of a Tallahassee-based law firm that advocated for Floridians with mental illnesses and disabilities.

It was at the federally funded Advocacy Center for Persons with Disabilities — now Disability Rights Florida — that Beach fashioned her most enduring legacy. She changed the way people saw, and spoke of, people with disabilities. She wrung millions in new dollars for Floridians with autism, intellectual impairments and cerebral palsy from a stingy Legislature. She shuttered most of the state’s large, antiquated institutions, where disabled people sometimes shared toothbrushes and were washed outside with hoses.

It was Beach’s law degree that became her most potent weapon. During the 1990s and early 2000s, the Advocacy Center filed a half-dozen class-action lawsuits that ultimately forced the state to increase spending on vulnerable Floridians, to enforce federal laws guaranteeing disabled children an equal public education, and to develop a system of group homes that gave families an alternative to large, mostly rural, institutions.

“She was a very critical instrument in changing the way Florida treated people with developmental disabilities,” said Pat Wear, who was Beach’s deputy at the Advocacy Center from 1997 to 2004, and who went on to oversee all state programs for disabled and mentally ill people in Kentucky.

“For better or worse, litigation was the tool she used. And from that time forward, the system has been significantly better-funded than prior to her time. She had such a passion,” Wear said. “She made many friends, and some enemies, because of that passion.”

Beach started her career as an environmentalist and historical preservationist. She nudged open the door to politics as an aide to then-U.S. Rep. Ed Stack, and parlayed that experience into a successful run for the Broward County Commission in 1980. It was then that her compass fixed permanently on the disadvantaged. Beach helped establish the county’s mental health boards, which, in turn, developed a system of community treatment centers.

Her tenure on the County Commission was tumultuous, coming as Broward developed from Old Florida rural to South Florida urban, with all the conflicts that kind of societal and power shift can bring. Those tensions were just subsiding when she left politics to finish law school.

At the Advocacy Center, Beach pushed legislation designed to force the state to integrate disabled people into their communities and away from mostly segregated centers, where family and government oversight was sporadic.

She was unyielding in her mission, which occasionally challenged longstanding friendships. Beach and late Gov. Lawton Chiles had known each other for years and had clicked early on because both grew up in small-town Polk County. Beach used their friendship as leverage to push reform bills when Chiles was governor in the 1990s.

Though Chiles, a Democrat, was sympathetic, he had no control over a GOP-led Legislature that was unwilling to spend more on human services.

When a bill to shut down the state’s institutions failed, Chiles went to Beach’s office to apologize, Lippman said. Beach took a picture of the two from her desk, and placed it inside a drawer. “She said, ‘I will always love you. But I am so disappointed,’” Lippman said.

In 1993, Beach expanded the center to Hollywood, and hired a young lawyer, now County Court Judge Ginger Lerner Wren, to oversee her efforts to close down Florida State Hospital in Pembroke Pines, which had been accused of warehousing people with mental illness, drugging them into zombies, and killing some.

It was Lerner Wren’s job to ensure that people released from the hospital were safe back home with families or in group homes. “You can’t underestimate the importance of this woman,” she said. “She had three federal class-action lawsuits going at the same time, which was unheard of. She was the General Patton of disability rights in Florida.”

Beach left the Advocacy Center in 1999, having forever changed the way the state cares for its weakest residents. In 2000, she won a seat on the Circuit Court, where she was assigned, first, to preside over cases involving abused and neglected children.

The top children’s court judge then was John Frusciante, a longtime veteran. He remembers Beach approached him immediately, and asked to sit beside him in court and observe before she took the bench herself. She asked a lot of questions.

“She wanted to do the best job she could do, and learn as much as she could about this area of law,” Frusciante said. “There was constant communication between us, and when there were issues, she came to me.”

Beach later was assigned to Broward’s Drug Court — it was the second drug court in the state, after Miami-Dade’s — and she put her stamp on the court quickly. Part courtroom, part counselor’s office and part tent revival, Beach’s slice of the Sixth Street courthouse was like no other: She hugged defendants who were struggling. Observers clapped with her when addicts successfully became clean.

“She never gave up on anybody,” said Broward Circuit Judge Michele Towbin Singer, whom Beach mentored, much as Frusciante had done for her. “An administrative order gave defendants 18 months” to complete a treatment program, “but she never kicked anyone out of drug court. She gave them as much time as they needed to keep trying.”

Broward added a second Drug Court bench, and opened the courtroom door to defendants facing minor property charges that resulted from addiction, after Beach hounded lawmakers for years for more money. “She went up every year and advocated for that,” said Towbin Singer, who was assigned to some of the new cases.

When Beach retired two years ago, she devoted herself to extended family in Polk County, organizing a family cruise that included 28 relatives in three generations, said her niece, Angie Gibson, who said Beach’s death has left “a big hole” in the family.

Shannon, she said, has been told of her mother’s death, but cannot understand.

“She keeps saying, ‘When will I see Mommy?’ We tell her, ‘You’ll see Mommy at the funeral, but she won’t be able to talk to us or see us. She is in heaven now. She will see us from there.’”

In addition to her husband, Cecil, and daughter, Shannon, 48, of Fort Lauderdale, Beach is survived by daughter Stephanie, 51, of North Carolina, two grandchildren and five stepsons.

A visitation will be held at 1 p.m. Thursday, followed by a service at 2 p.m., at Gentry Morrison Funeral Home on Highway 98 in Lakeland, where Beach will be cremated and laid to rest in a family plot.