Policy and Politics in the Land of Lincoln

Suzanne Strassberger

Suzanne Strassberger writes about the personalities, minutiae, and back-stories behind decision-making in Springfield.

Policy and Politics in the Land of Lincoln

Battle begins to restore budget reductions

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This summer, the heat is scorching. So are discussions around the budget reductions to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.

Here are the facts. The Illinois State Legislature reduced state spending for DCFS by more than $100 million, a 13% cut, the deepest for any major state agency. Director Calica responded by saying that DCFS would focus its work on children and adolescents who are state wards and who come from families with "indicated" abuse or neglect.

Director Calica understands that this mean cuts to prevention services. This in turn will most likely lead to more children going into DCFS care. Many of the prevention programs put into place under Director McDonald in the 1990s to reduce DCFS State Wards such as counseling will be dramatically reduced. DCFS personnel will be cut by approximately 375 staff, about 13% of the staff.

Why was DCFS targeted?

Some say the scandal around an unmonitored contract to a private agency which led to the ouster of the former director, Erwin (Mac) McEwen, tarnished the image of the agency. Mac was widely respected by legislators and child welfare professionals alike. Indeed, many people think Mac was not directly connected with the scandal but because he was head of the agency, his head had to roll.

One result is that people are now willing to say publicly that they think the agency is inefficiently managed. The new Director was even quoted as saying there was too much invested in middle management. So, why throw good money after bad by continuing the same levels of funding?

The same House Appropriations committee that gave Director McEwen a "pass," in previous years, was not so generous with Director Calica. They had listened to the heads of the Department on Aging, Healthcare and Family Services, Human Services, and Public Health talk sadly about changes restricting clients' access to services. These Directors talked reluctantly about "utilization management," as a way to dramatically limit the amount of services provided in certain programs. Lack of money was driving the policy.

So, perhaps it was DCFS's time to be cut. DCFS is protected by several federal class action lawsuits, most notably the BH decree which mandates that the state maintain adequate levels of staffing and mental health services for child protection and foster care services. Several years ago, when the Legislature tried to reduce DCFS's funding, Director McEwen personally visited most of the legislators involved in the decision-making, persuading them to reverse their recommendation based on the fear of a lawsuit. This year, the Legislature seemed more willing to gamble that cuts which will be made may trigger a serious lawsuit.

What do the cuts to staff mean at the ground level, for the many community-based agencies who work with DCFS? Jewish Child and Family Services partners with DCFS to provide a range of critical services to children and families with identified indicators of abuse or neglect. This is part of the mission of JCFS and, in addition to state money, they raise private funds to support the quality of the work. To do their job, JCFS staff talks regularly with the DCFS staff because, in most cases, the State has legal responsibility for the child. If funding reductions mean that JCFS staff won't have timely access to knowledgeable DCFS staff, then our work is put at risk.

The battle to restore funding will be fought in the media. Will the media blame even one tragedy for a child this summer on department inefficiency or staff reductions? Will the media be convinced that more efficiency will come from Director Calica's plans for a massive realignment of staff to move more staff into the front-lines? This is not clear from the recent Tribune article on a "cold DCFS hotline."

Certainly, Governor Quinn is very aware that the lives of children are at stake. When the Governor announced the closing of the Tamms and Dwight correctional and juvenile justice facilities, he asked that some of the $50 million of the savings be directed to partial restoration of DCFS's budget.

It is revealing that there were few accolades for the Governor for redirecting money from corrections to child protection. Rather, according to the Chicago Tribune, everyone else in state government asked that the $50 million directed to their pet projects. The Chicago Tribune used the moment to lament about the perceived unwillingness of our elected officials to complete pension reform. The union, too, joined in the chorus of criticism about the Governor's decision by asking the State Legislature to override the Governor's veto of funding for those two facilities.

The DCFS story is one and but only one story of first funding cuts and then the battle to restore the funding. Another story getting much media attention is the one around the reductions to the program for medically fragile children. And then there are many Medicaid reductions that are being watched closely. The ink may not yet be dry on the new budget but no one thinks all of the reductions will stick.

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