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Thursday, Sept. 4, 2008 05:40 am

Fostering despair

Lawmakers and advocates decry cuts to children’s care agencies

Thousands of neglected and abused wards of the state of Illinois will have to go without specialized mental-health treatment as a result of cuts ordered by Gov. Rod Blagojevich, according to the Springfield-based Community Behavioral Healthcare Association.

Blagojevich removed a total of $71 million in funding from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, the agency in charge of caring for 16,000 children currently in what is known as "substitute care." The category includes foster or relative care, group homes, protective daycare, and other programs.

To meet its reduced budget, CBHA executive director Frank Anselmo says, DCFS will have to slash special programs targeted at helping children in foster care cope with neglect and abuse experienced in their past.

In addition to the cuts at DCFS, state divisions of Alcohol and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services experienced cuts to human services totaling $75 million.

"None of these services for children and families work in isolation from each other. Vulnerable families often need mental health, substance abuse, and foster care services. They are in many cases getting hit with triple whammies," Anselmo says, referring to three Illinois social-service agencies impacted by Blagojevich's vetoes.

Springfield-area lawmakers also oppose cuts to Illinois human services departments, as well as state departments of natural resources and historic preservation agencies.

State Reps. Rich Brauer, R-Petersburg, and Raymond Poe, R-Springfield, characterized layoffs at DCFS, state Department of Human Services, Department of Natural Resources, and Historic Preservation Agency, as "reckless and potentially deadly."

Blagojevich has also cut funding for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency by $2.8 million and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources by $14 million [See R.L. Nave, "Recreation degradation," Aug. 15], prompting both agencies to plan closures of several historic sites and state parks later this fall.

Brauer says Blagojevich has lost track of what's important to Illinoisans. "We're looking at a situation where abused and neglected children are going to be put in harm's way by his decision, not to mention the reduction in medical care for those in Illinois who need it most," Brauer says. Poe asks, "How can we trust a man who is going to turn his back on abused children and those in dire need of medical care?"

Marge Berlind, chief executive officer of the Child Care Association of Illinois, predicts that once the cuts are implemented caseloads of already overburdened DCFS caseworkers will "jump from 15-to-1 to 20-to-1 in a heartbeat." Additionally, cutting resources earmarked for mental-health services for children who have attempted suicide, for example, "could cause a true tragedy," Berlind says.

The General Assembly, which reconvenes after Election Day for the fall veto session, can restore the funds through a supplemental appropriation. "Waiting until November will be too late for many of our children, mothers, dads, and residents of our communities," Anselmo says.

Kendall Marlowe, spokesman for DCFS, says that the agency has made no final decisions with respect to its systems of care programs. "It's a tough national economy and we've been dealt a difficult hand," Marlowe says. "But we're working hard to minimize the impact to services for children."

Contact R.L. Nave at rnave@illinoistimes.com

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