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Thursday, July 16, 2009 03:43 am

A decree of relief

Court orders DCFS to restore service cuts

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Foster care, day care and assistance to pregnant women were slated for cuts prior to the court-ordered restoration of services.
PHOTO BY CANDICE C. CUSIC/MCT

As the Illinois General Assembly grapples with a budget for the fiscal year that began July 1, Gov. Pat Quinn moved to slash funding from social service agencies, eliminating some programs and drastically reducing others. The Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) faced massive cuts, but a recent emergency court petition has resulted in the governor reversing some cuts to the department’s key programs.

For more than 20 years, DCFS has operated under the “B.H. Decree,” the result of a class action suit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of children who are wards of the state. Under the decree, DCFS is required to promptly identify and provide timely access to medical, mental health and developmental needs of its wards. The department is also required to ensure that specific services outlined in each child’s plan be provided, and to develop sufficient foster homes, specialized foster homes, residential placements and independent living programs to meet the placement needs of its wards. The court order also addresses caseloads of the department’s investigative caseworkers.

Originally, DCFS was slated to eliminate some of its essential services July 1 — psychological assessments, counseling, assistance to pregnant wards, foster care respite and support services, including day care — and to cut payments to foster parents, as well as parents who have guardianship or adopt state wards. However, on June 29, attorneys representing the wards filed an emergency court petition requesting an order to stop the cuts, claiming that they violated the B.H. Decree.

“These actual and impending decree violations threaten the health, safety and welfare of the class,” resulting in “irreparable harm absent entry of an injunction enforcing the decree,” said the petition. It went on to say that the governor’s chief of staff, as well as DCFS Director Erwin McEwen, have admitted that the cuts will result in “extensive violations of the decree and risk serious harm to the children in DCFS custody.” The petition cites a June 5, 2009, letter written by McEwen to the director of the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget: “In a doomsday scenario with no restoration to the…reduction, DCFS would virtually shut down.” The petition further states that in the letter, McEwen admitted that if the cuts are implemented DCFS “would be in violation of the law and consent decree regarding services to protected classes of Illinois citizens and would fail in its ability to reasonably insure the safety of the children and families we serve.”

Last week, Judge John Grady, “persuaded” by McEwen’s letter, ruled that cutting the programs and services did indeed violate the B.H. Decree, thus creating “irreparable damage.” As a result, DCFS was ordered to stop the cuts, to “maintain current caseload ratios for investigative personnel” and to provide “fully adequate monitoring of service providers.”

Grady further wrote: “The harm that would occur following the program and service reductions…could not be restored in the short term once the cuts are made.”

Based on the court’s decision, the governor’s office began notifying DCFS service providers informing them to disregard previous notifications of cuts and to continue services at the same rate received in fiscal 2009, which ended June 30.

The Department of Children and Family Services currently operates with a “fluid” budget of approximately $1.3 billion. According to Kendall Marlowe, about $406 million goes towards programs and services that comply with the B.H. Decree. While key programs will continue, DCFS does not escape without any budget cuts. Marlowe says that DCFS is cutting $16 million from its budget. “These cuts will come from administration as opposed to programs for children,” says Marlowe, adding that the “true cost of any cuts will be in the lives of children.”

Contact Jolonda Young at ladyj2066@aol.com.

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