As Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner and state lawmakers butt heads over the state’s fiscal health for the coming year, housing and other services for young-adult wards of the state are hanging in the balance.
But the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, a longtime nemesis of the state’s Department of Children and Family Services, says it remains poised to ensure state supported youth welfare programs do not fall under this year’s budget axe.
“We may well be back in court,” says Benjamin S. Wolf, the advocacy group’s associate legal director. Indeed, Wolf has led repeated ACLU forays against DCFS in Chicago’s federal district court ever since a landmark 1988 lawsuit charged negligent and inadequate care of its young clients.
On the brink of Illinois’ 2016 fiscal year, which begins July 1, the state is without a budget and reportedly may briefly extend 2015 funding levels until agreement is reached between Democratic House and Senate leaders and Republican Gov. Rauner.
In his $31.50 billion plan, funding for DCFS was slashed by 12.5 percent to $1.03 billion. The brunt of that cut targeted independent living and transitional housing services for 18- to 21-year-old DCFS clients.
For the Children’s Home + Aid Society of Illinois, a Chicago-based DCFS service provider, the cut would be bad news for the more than 100 kids in its care over the age of 18. “Some have just begun jobs…[or] are trying to go to college,” says Nancy Ronquillo, the group’s president and CEO.
But during the last days of this year’s regular legislative session in Springfield, House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton hurriedly introduced and engineered passage of a Democratic budget version for 2016 that outflanked Republican Bruce Rauner’s spending plan.
That $36.32 billion budget passed by state lawmakers May 29 (which contains a $3.0 billion deficit) reversed many of Rauner’s human services cuts. For 2016, DCFS’s “Youth in Transition” program was slated to receive the $866,800 in General Revenue fund money budgeted for this fiscal year.
Gov. Rauner’s response was to veto the Democratic budget bills that gained passage in the General Assembly—with the exception of education. That left Democratic legislative leaders having to resume negotiations with Rauner over what his administration calls its “Turnaround Agenda.”
Even under the Madigan-Cullerton budget DCFS would have gotten just under $1.18 billion, a drop in the agency’s funding by $2.6 million from 2015 levels.
However the impasse is resolved, Wolf says eliminating services for DCFS wards isn’t an option as a result of ACLU’s federal lawsuit filed nearly three decades ago.
In 1988, the ACLU sued DCFS in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, charging the agency did not provide adequate services and care for its young clients. The suit, filed on behalf of all youths under the state’s custodial care—including 18- to 21-year-olds—was settled by a consent decree approved by the court in 1991.
That decree is still in force. In fact, ACLU already brought DCFS back to court earlier this year when it filed an emergency motion to enforce the consent decree, following a Chicago Tribune series that found rampant abuse and neglect in DCFS’ residential centers, where some of the state’s most troubled youth are sent.
Following the emergency motion, the federal court appointed four experts to review DCFS practices and determine what, if anything, needs to change. Wolf says the experts would need to address DCFS monitoring, among many other issues. Their final report was expected in late June.
Despite the 1988 lawsuit and subsequent consent decree, addressing DCFS care and service shortfalls has been a constant struggle, Wolf argues. “In one form or another those things were known inside the bureaucracy. I don’t know whether they ever got to the director’s desk,” Wolf says. “They’ll write a report saying, you know, 140 kids ran away from this place last month, but then nothing happens even though that’s obviously a problem.”
This lack of communication has spilled over onto direct service providers and even foster homes, making it more difficult to maintain adequate standards of care, Wolf says. “The DCFS data systems are full of data but they aren’t very useful for doing real monitoring and oversight and responding,” he says.
Wolf adds that monitors, who are part of DCFS, are often not effective. “The residential programs, the good ones think the inspectors, monitors are a joke,” Wolf says. “The bad ones know they can fool them and get away with running a lousy program, an understaffed program, and they’ll never see it.”
Previously, DCFS monitors were independent, employed by University of Illinois at Chicago rather than the agency. Wolf says they are trying to reboot the system with UIC.
Moreover, when the agency decides to make a change, it is often a reactive rather than a proactive decision, according to a foster parent and other service providers. “A lot of the things that have changed practice are mainly around bad things that have happened,” says Kathy Grzelak, executive director of Kaleidoscope, a DCFS service provider. She says DCFS has brought in experts to try and improve services, but “there’s no consistency…to make sure all those same message are given across the years and across agencies.”
Cindy Noska, who has been a foster parent for six months, has had similar issues with DCFS. “No one really tells you what’s going on,” she says. “I feel like I’m playing a game that I don’t know all the rules to.” In the past six months, Noska has had three different caseworkers and says there was hardly any communication, unless she’s complained about something.
“There’s kind of an incomplete feedback loop,” Ronquillo says. “There’s information that the department would have that the agencies don’t have.”
But Ronquillo, says any funding cuts by the state would make it nearly impossible to make improvements, whether to communication or direct services.
“You can’t afford to do any of it,” she says.