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Wednesday, July 16, 2008 07:29 am

First domino to fall

Governor’s cuts to drug-treatment programs will have wide-reaching effects

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Untitled Document Because she doesn’t want her name used, I’m going to call her Sue. For more than 10 years Sue has worked for a drug-abuse and mental-illness treatment center in Decatur. Her job is administrative; she doesn’t deal directly with patients — at least not at work — but Sue has a drug-addicted son living in her home. She can’t pinpoint exactly when her son’s substance-abuse problem started, or when it crossed that invisible line into full-blown addiction. All she knows for sure is that her son’s illness eventually led him into a life of crime. Facing his first felony — a burglary charge — he pleaded guilty and was offered probation instead of prison if he would enroll in a drug-treatment program. This kind of deal is frequently offered to nonviolent offenders who have substance abuse problems. It’s often called “TASC probation,” short for Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities — the statewide not-for-profit organization that provides assessment and referral services at the request of judges, prosecutors, public defenders, and probation officers, basically matching up offenders with appropriate community services. Through TASC, Sue’s son spent four months in a residential drug-treatment facility (not the one where she works) and progressed to outpatient treatment. Sue says he consistently followed up with his probation officer — for a while. “In the last week,” she says, “I have reason to believe that he has relapsed.” Her son underwent a drug screen, and though the results haven’t come in yet Sue has been bracing herself for bad news.
Then, on Tuesday morning, her dread deepened. At her office she attended a staff meeting where the main topic of discussion was Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s newly proposed wholesale amputations to the state budget [see Rich Miller “What to cut” July 3]. Under Blago’s ax, drug-treatment centers around the state like the one where Sue works — and the one where her son got help — will lose $55 million in state funds.  This amount might sound like pocket change in the context of the state’s big fat coffers. To the network of drug-treatment service providers, however, it’s about half of their budget — and that’s just the first domino of many that will fall.
For starters, the gov has done something spectacularly stupid by whacking this particular pocket of $55 million because it is matched, dollar for dollar, by a federal Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment block grant. When the state funds stop, the federal funds vanish, too. Oops! “It’s beyond my comprehension — I’m just speaking for me — why someone would cut money that gets you additional free money, essentially, to do really good things,” says Karel Ares, executive director of Prevention First, another nonprofit agency affected by the proposed cuts. “Why would you cut something that would stop federal funding from coming into the state?”
Ares’ agency would be hit particularly hard because, as its name implies, Prevention First focuses on stopping drug addiction before it starts by providing training and educational resources for schools, community organizations, and other government agencies. Such prevention activities are funded almost entirely by the federal grant that will disappear when the state funds stop.
But that’s not even the dumbest part. If the state stops funding programs on Blago’s veto list — youth involved in the court system, methamphetamine-addiction treatment, women in the federal welfare-to-work program who need treatment to keep their jobs — what will happen to the loved ones of the people who desperately need those services? What will happen to the woman whose alcoholic husband can’t keep a job? What will happen to the fetus inside a crack-addicted woman? What will happen to Sue’s son, who needs a chance to tackle the addiction that made him steal rather than a trip to prison? During the staff meeting Sue was in tears as questions spun through her head: “What are his options if there’s not a treatment facility available? Will they charge him with violation of his probation? Will they send him to prison?”
Earlier this week, Sue’s boss joined other drug-abuse treatment providers at a press conference during which they tried to describe for reporters the effects these cuts will have on a system already so overburdened that every center has long waiting lists. Keith Kuhn of the Gateway Foundation in Springfield predicted “the likely implosion of the treatment-provider network in Illinois.” TASC administrator Kent Holsopple predicted an explosion in the prison population, where keeping drug-addicted criminals costs more than $21,500 per year instead of the $4,425 it would cost to keep them at home, working or in school, on TASC probation. We all took notes; some of us have followed with stories. But stopping the cuts at this point would require more energy and integrity than I’ve ever seen exhibited by Illinois legislators. The press conference and this column are just a message in a bottle — you know, the kind of bottle you might see in a gutter, lying next to a former client.

Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com
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