PI Original Matthew Blake Friday October 5th, 2012, 4:53pm

Layoffs And Uncertainty At Illinois DCFS

The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services postponed 375 layoffs that the agency was scheduled to make this week, citing a delay in the administrative process. But cutbacks at DCFS are well under way.

The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services postponed 375 layoffs that the agency was scheduled to make this week, citing a delay in the administrative process. But cutbacks at DCFS, due to an $86 million reduction in their annual budget that the General Assembly passed in May, are well under way even amid speculation the agency will recoup funding during the fall veto session.

In August, DCFS began to privatize its intact family services program, which, as the name suggests, attempts to keep families intact so children are not sent into foster care due to abuse or neglect. DCFS spokesman Kenneth Marlowe said that prior to this fiscal year, which started July 1, intact family services assisted 4,639 families. Now, private agencies will provide services to just 3,200 families, according to Marlowe.

Gov. Pat Quinn has indicated that he wants the majority of DCFS cuts restored to the $1.2 billion agency budget. When the General Assembly meets in late November, Quinn hopes legislators shift the $57 million the state plans to save from the closure of prisons and juvenile detention centers to DCFS.

However, AFSCME Council 31 public employees union sued to stop these facility closings and has enjoyed initial success in legally stopping the shutdowns. AFSCME, meanwhile, also represents most DCFS workers, and, as Progress Illinois reported, protested the DFCS cuts.

AFSCME spokesman Anders Lindall says Quinn has presented a “false choice” between facility closings and DCFS cuts. The union spokesman argues that money for DFCS could come from elsewhere, such as a portion of the $165 million the state collected Tuesday in selling Thomson prison to the federal government.

Also, Lindall contends that Quinn’s pledge to reverse DFCS cuts is “hollow.”

“They say they want to prevent the cuts,” Lindall says. “But they have issued layoff notices and already turned families away and privatized the work.”

Marlowe responds that the agency’s hands are tied. “State agencies can only spend money that the General Assembly has appropriated,” the agency spokesman says.

So why not wait and see if the legislture appropriates the money in the fall veto session?

Marlowe replies that the agency must plan around the fiscal year that the General Assembly outlined in May instead of anticipating additional funds because “if we gamble and lose we might have to layoff significantly more people.”

Complicating matters for DCFS is that the agency acknowledged earlier this year that they are not in compliance with a 1991 federal consent decree. The legal order places limits on how many cases agency investigators and social workers take on. DCFS is currently in talks with ACLU Illinois, which sued to put the consent decree in place, on a solution that meets the constraints of the agency’s budget.

In fact, part of the reason that DFCS focused their cuts on intact family services is because such preventive services are not part of the consent decree.

Benjamin Wolf, associate legal director of ACLU Illinois, says that DCFS is in a bind because the “legislature irresponsibly made cuts.” But he fears that the cuts to intact family services will place more children in the foster care system and cause long-term harm to both the agency and the vulnerable children they serve.

DCFS has come under fire this year in a series of Chicago Tribune articles for not meeting the consent decree and also being alarmingly slow to respond in some emergency situations, including instances where parents murder their children.

However, an agency that President Bill Clinton singled out in the 1990s as allowing children to live in conditions the president characterized as Third World has made tangible improvements over the last 20 years.

For example, the number of Illinois children in foster care has been reduced from 50,000 in the 1990s to a little more than 14,000 last year. Wolf credits DCFS for connecting foster children with adopted families along with preventive programs, like intact family services. But Wolf and Lindall warn such gains could be reversed by continued budget cuts.

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