Wednesday, October 03, 2012

DCFS chief says budget cuts threaten children's lives

By Jamey Dunn

In the wake of an estimated $90 million budget cut, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services has slashed a program that works to keep kids with their families and is shifting focus from prevention to meeting its legal obligations and simply keeping kids alive.

“We took a look at how could we minimize our risk and still maintain the level of services that we [are] responsible for. When I say minimize risk, I’m talking about death of children. Because that’s ultimately what the Department of Children and Family Services is responsible for, is protecting children from dying,” DCFS Director Richard Calica told a Senate committee at a Chicago hearing. He added, “Well-being is nice, but death is what lands in the papers, and death is what I’m responsible for.” Calica said the reduction means the agency would reduce services that are not legally required by law or consent decrees.

DCFS admitted earlier this year that it was not in compliance with a 1991 federal consent decree. As a result, DCFS rehired some retired workers on a temporary basis and moved employees over to abuse-and-neglect cases. Caseloads had climbed up to 18 or 19 per investigator per month. DCFS agreed to limit caseloads to 12 except for three months out of the year, when they can climb to 15. “Conditions inside DCFS had reached a tipping point,” Benjamin Wolf, associate legal director of the ACLU of Illinois, told the Chicago Tribune in August. “Recent budget cuts, combined with a degradation of front-line services over the past years, threaten to wipe out important gains made in reforming the system in the past two decades. The plan presented in court … is an important step toward reversing that trend.” Under the consent decree, the ACLU represents all children in the foster care system.

Calica said that the department could have handled the more than $40 million cut in a restructuring plan worked out by the Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration and would not have had to cut services or reduce headcount. He said the deeper cut, approved by the General Assembly this spring, requires the layoffs of nearly 300 workers. Of the reduction, $27 million came out of money for personnel, so the director said that left him no choice other than layoffs. “I cannot make the decision to not buy computers instead of not firing people. When you tell me $27 million in personal services, those are bodies.”

The bulk of the layoffs will come from a program known as intact family services. Before the cuts, the services, such as counseling, child mentoring and parenting classes, had been offered to at-risk families. “It is an option between taking a child into custody and walking away and doing nothing,” said DCFS spokesman Kendall Marlowe. “In the past, the investigator was able to make that judgment call based on the situation that they saw in front of them, based on their assessment.” But as of October 1, DCFS no longer administers the program and is instead contracting with outside organizations to provide intact services. The department has also tightened eligibility requirements.

“So we looked at intact family services, and we took a look at those families that we were serving currently, which ones were the ones that were most likely to result in a child that would die?” Calica said. He said that after reviewing research, the department created indicators meant to predict which families were likely to have repeat cases of abuse. Those warning signs then became the filtering system for eligibility for the program. The indicators are: a child under 5 years old in the household, five or more previous reports of abuse, a male adult in the household who is not biologically related to children and has committed abuse previously and a mother who was raised in the DCFS system. Marlowe said that to be eligible for the program, a family must have a verified case of abuse and one of one of the five risk factors. More at-risk families are prioritized because the department must cut costs. “It was a manner of managing a caseload to [fit] a dollar figure,” he said.

The intact services program served 4,500 to 5,000 families annually. DCFS estimates that the new eligibility requirements would allow about 3,200 into the program this year. “Intact family services are not being eliminated. The scope is being reduced by a third,” Marlowe said.

Letreurna Packer, a DCFS intact supervisor and 22-year veteran of DCFS, told the committee stories of families who were helped by the program but would not qualify under the new rules. One was of a father with five kids from 10 to 16 years old. His wife died, and the father took on the role of full-time income-earner and caregiver. “He worked every day, and he came home and he did the best that he possibly could to care for his children with the lack of support that they had.”

The father was reported for abuse. “He physically abused the children because that was the only mode of discipline that he knew,” Packer said. She said the intact program provided counseling and mentoring services for the children and parenting classes for the father. DCFS workers also checked in on the family twice a week and after 15 months, they were able to close the case without having to remove the children from their home. “It keeps the kids out of the system, which can cost even more,” she said. Marlowe said there is process through which a family could be granted an exception and allowed intact services, even if it does not meet the new requirements.

“They keep families together, and they also provide a monitoring function so we know what’s going on in families that have had trouble,” said Anne Irving, director of public policy for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31. The union represents many of the employees who are scheduled for layoff. Irving said that if the program is scaled back and no longer administered by DCFS, “more kids are going to get pulled from their home. That’s bad for the state financially. It’s bad for the kids. It’s obviously bad for the families.”

The union and Calica urged lawmakers to approve supplemental spending for the agency to either eliminate or soften the blow of the cuts. Quinn has spoken out against the cuts, too. However, AFSCME opposes the funding source that he has suggested to pay for supplemental spending. Quinn is asking lawmakers to sustain his vetoes of funding to keep open several state facilities that employ AFSCME members and instead spend the money at DCFS. Some on the committee echoed the governor’s point of view. “When you have a budget, it’s more than a data point on a sheet. It’s a moral document, and it’s about how our state sets our priorities. If we can retain prisons that are half full in certain areas of the state or give tax credits to certain businesses that are holding the state hostage saying that they will leave unless they get money from the state to stay, there’s a problem there,” said Sen. Jacqueline Collins, a Democrat from Chicago.

Lawmakers at the hearing accused Calica of being callous in his statements before the committee and the way he has related to DCFS employees. “The bottom line is, you’re the Grim Reaper. You’re to keep the governor’s name out of the paper. That’s your job,” said Sen. Donne Trotter, a Chicago Democrat. “When you applied for the job, you knew what the job description was. One of them was to come in and make these cuts in this agency.”

Calica was brought in to replace former director Erwin McEwen, who resigned just prior to a scandal that broke over the awarding of contracts to provider George Smith, whom the director described as “personal mentor and friend.” Smith is accused of double billing the state and accepting money without providing services. Smith may have walked away with millions in fraudulent billing. (For more on Calica and the proposed restructuring plan, see this profile of the director in Illinois Issues June 2012.)

Calica said that he was aware when he started the job last December that he would be overseeing a restructuring plan that would involve trimming the budget and moving some management workers to front-line positions. “I was brought into the department under a cloud of fiscal irresponsibility by my predecessor.” However, he said that the cut that lawmakers passed in May was much deeper than what he had planned for. “When I was given that [restructuring plan] budget, I was not the Grim Reaper. That was not Grim Reaper time. When the budget was passed by the legislature that added another $50 million cut on, that became a Grim Reaper problem.”

He said that the changes at the agency are the product of the budget approved by the General Assembly. “The layoffs that you’ve been hearing about have to do with the budget that you all passed. You gave me the mandate to save $27 million. I don’t know how to save that without firing people, and I don’t know how to choose other than to choose based on the well-being of the children that I’m responsible for.”

Marlowe reiterated his boss’ statements about the department’s priorities, albeit in a slightly less blunt fashion. “We have core responsibilities to safety, permanency [of placement of children either back with their families or in adoptive homes] and well-being. But permanency and well-being can’t happen if a child is [not] safe. We need to protect lives. And in tight times, we still work to give children permanency and well-being, but we do have to prioritize their lives and their safety.” But both acknowledge that scaling back the intact families program could lead to more children becoming wards of the state. However, Marlowe said that he suspects it would not be a substantial increase.

“It may cost the state a lot more money by our doing this. ... A lot more children may land in foster care. It might have been a very stupid move to pass a budget like that,” Calica said.

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