Illinois child welfare agency mulls cuts, layoffs
CHICAGO – Already in open violation of a federal decree on child welfare investigations, the Illinois agency that oversees well-being of families faces new budget cuts that could lead to hundreds of worker layoffs and the elimination of services that have helped keep thousands of children out of foster care.
The Department of Children and Family Services would see some $85 million in trims under the budget lawmakers passed last month to deal with the state's financial crisis.
Several agencies are facing steep reductions and difficult decisions as a result, but DCFS Director Richard Calica said the budget cuts could be particularly painful for his department. Each year, it has contact with some 150,000 Illinois children and initiates about 63,000 investigations through a child-abuse hotline.
"The safety net that we've provided for the community has been eroded based on what the people of Illinois have allocated to our work," DCFS Director Richard Calica, who took over in December, told The Associated Press.
Gov. Pat Quinn, who has called the cuts unacceptable, could make changes before signing the budget, which must take effect July 1. Calica said he and Quinn have been meeting over ways to restore cuts, though Quinn has declined to provide details. In the meantime Calica said he can't plan on a break.
"That's bad management," he said. "I'll only plan on what I actually have in my own hand."
Union officials say they fear the cuts would undercut major reforms the department has made since the 1990s, including cutting the number of children in foster care from 52,000 to about 15,000.
"That is totally unacceptable and amounts to turning back the clock and rolling back progress that has been made over the last two decades," said Anders Lindall, a spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31.
The scaled-down approximately $1.2 billion budget would cut some $27 million from personnel – eliminating about 375 positions, or roughly 12 percent of the nearly 3,000 department employees.
The timing is particularly troubling as the agency is also under fire for being unstaffed in critical areas.
The department admitted this year that it was in violation of a 1991 consent decree that settled a class-action lawsuit brought by the ACLU. The decree sets levels of child-protection and foster-care services. The rules have some exceptions, but generally investigators cannot be assigned to more than 12 new cases a month.
The agency has around 490 investigators when it should have about 615, said agency spokesman Kendall Marlowe. If DCFS doesn't comply soon they could be taken back to court. Currently more than half of investigators have been assigned more work than allowed.
Sharon Richardson has been an investigator in Cook County for more than a decade. Ideally workers should not have more than 24 cases at a time, earlier this month she had 40 pending cases at once. Her work – focusing on the most serious abuse cases – has become triage.
"It's almost like on an emergency basis. I do what I can," she said. "You don't have a choice. You can't refuse cases if there's nobody or person to take the cases."
At times the lack of adequate inspections leads to disturbing discoveries. The Chicago Tribune reported this month that a 16-year-old with cerebral palsy was starved to 23 pounds, and DCFS workers didn't note that until a fourth home visit. The mother later was placed on 18 months' probation and ordered to take parenting classes.
Despite the troubles, lawmakers say their hands were tied when it came to the budget. Illinois is billions of dollars behind in paying bills. It faces an approximately $85 billion gap in meeting pension payments and recently approved Medicaid reforms that cut $1.6 billion from health care spending.
"The state of Illinois has very little money to spend. We really are a state in dire fiscal situation," said state Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, a Chicago Democrat who was on the committee that set spending "We have done some dire things in this budget."
Calica said the first things that must be eliminated are non-essential services not mandated by law. That includes violence prevention programs and what's known as intact family services, where case workers' focus is to keep children who aren't facing immediate danger with their families.
That could include ensuring a mentally-ill parent is diligent about medication or looking out for signs of long-term neglect, according to supervisor Lori Welcher-Evans. She has spent nearly two decades doing just that and solving problems so that children don't have to be removed from the home. About 5,000 families rely on intact family services.
"I'm at a loss for words," she said when asked about the impact of the potential cuts.
Kenneth Webster, a Chicago father of three, said those services helped him get back on track and full custody of his three children when their mother faced substance abuse. He called the agency himself to keep the family together. A case worker facilitated family meetings, offered parenting classes and helped set a long-term plan.
"There are a lot of people out there like me who need to get on the ball," said the 50-year-old former truck driver. "I love the heck out of these children. I wanted to make sure I was right."
Even Calica has admitted that such services have helped keep children out of foster care and he expects the number in foster care to rise. That has child advocates are already cringing. They allege the cuts may end up costing Illinois more.
"You're removing the child from his family and putting him in substitute care, we don't want to do that when we don't have to," said Margaret Berglind, president of the Child Care Association of Illinois. "The child, no matter what may have happened, is still bonded with that family."
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