PI Original Ellyn Fortino Thursday February 14th, 2013, 3:59pm

Illinois' Budgetary Problems Put Child Welfare Services Progress In Jeopardy, Report Says

Illinois’ fiscal crisis is posing a significant threat to the health and safety of children across the state, according to Voices for Illinois Children's annual Kids Count report.

Illinois’ fiscal crisis is posing a significant threat to the health and safety of children across the state, according to Voices for Illinois Children's annual Kids Count report.

Despite great progress over the last 25 years, federal and local budget woes have resulted in troubling setbacks in early childhood education, health care coverage and child care services in Illinois, according to the report “Moving Policy, Making Progress.”

“We’re at a crossroads, and we have difficult choices to make,” said Christina LePage, population health manager with the DuPage County Health Department, at a news conference Thursday morning announcing the report's release.

“We challenge Illinois to do the right thing and the smart thing,” she added.

The “right thing” includes building on past achievements and tackling issues facing children and families today in order to position Illinois for the future, she said.

The report highlights three areas of key progress in the state, early childcare education, health care coverage and child care services, that risk being stalled or undermined if lawmakers fail to fund children's services properly due to the state's budgetary woes. Because of this, the report calls for a renewed commitment in child investment, particularly from state lawmakers.

When asked how the report may be received in Springfield, Becky Beilfuss, executive director of Teen Parent Connection, said “We continually hear, ‘That’s great. We want to help, but there’s just no money to do that.’”

“We’ve been down there fighting to keep what we’ve got,” she added.

But Jeanna Capito, executive director of Positive Parenting DuPage, said President Barack Obama’s recent call for preschool for every child in America during his State of the Union address may sway some Springfield lawmakers.

“Our politicians in Illinois ... aren’t stupid,” Capito said. “They know that the president is putting energy and money into early education, so this is actually a very well-timed report for us.”

And Illinois has been a national leader by expanding access to early learning opportunities, according to the report.

For example, between the fiscal years of 1998 and 2009, participation in state-funded early learning programs had doubled, LePage said.

That’s important, she added, because children who attend preschool repeat grades less, have fewer behavioral problems in school and graduate at higher rates than their peers who do not attend preschool.

But what’s troubling, she said, is that in the last four years, deep budget cuts have resulted in about 20,000 fewer children attending state-supported preschools.

Illinois has also experienced a “revolution” in health care coverage for the state’s children, the report reads.

About 1.7 million children in the state are currently enrolled in Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program and All Kids expansion, according to the report.

“Illinois has one of the lowest rates of uninsured children in the nation,” LePage said. “That’s good for kids, good for the economy. Healthy children miss fewer days of school, and their parents miss fewer days of work.”

But the “Medicaid stabilization plan” put in place last year could jeopardize access to services, especially for children with special needs, according to the report.

In addition, Illinois has also shown great progress with child care services.

The Illinois Child Care Assistance Program serves about 170,000 children each month.

Affordable and high-quality child care allows low-income families to work and ensures children are in a safe environment, LePage said.

But,“stricter eligibility requirements have led to substantial increases in childcare costs,” LePage said.

For a single-parent family with two children at 150 percent of poverty level, co-payments rose from $85 per month to $180 per month from 2011 to 2012, according to the report.

In addition to the state’s fiscal crisis, LePage said there are several other challenges that must be addressed in the state, including “disturbing” trends in child poverty, racial and ethnic disparities in child well-being, and the impact of children’s exposure to violence.

“Local communities are really baring a lot of responsibility in ensuring that there’s high-quality opportunities for Illinois children,” added Alix Tonsgard, an intern with Positive Parenting DuPage.

John Langton, superintendent of Addison School District 4, said the district is grappling with how to provide more of those high-quality opportunities.

The district was recently ranked No. 5 in the state for under-serving early childhood populations.

“That is not a statistic we should be proud of,” he said.

But it’s not a simple fix, he said, especially because it’s projected to cost more than $1 million just to implement a full day of kindergarten instead of its current half day.

“We know that we can do better,” he added.

But it’s not just individual school districts and service providers that bear the responsibility, members of the panel said.

“We want our policymakers to make smart decisions, which will set the course for a prosperous future for all,” LePage said.



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