Budget for children and families
By AMYLLEN L. BODILY
Gov. Jim Edgar calls his fiscal year 1993 budget proposal a children's budget. The governor listed as his funding priorities education, programs serving the neediest and most vulnerable families and children, and essential public safety concerns. Children were declared the "winners" in a budget that contained many "losers."
Under Edgar's budget proposal the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) received a 12 percent increase, but that may not be enough. DCFS faces the challenge of skyrocketing cases, sweeping reforms mandated by federal court order and the effects of deep cuts to other agencies that help keep families intact and healthy.
The DCFS increase totals $76.1 million, and the agency is one of only three to receive increased general funds. In the same budget, able-bodied men and women would be dropped from the state-funded transitional assistance program, formerly known as general assistance. Revenue sharing for local governments, which serve as a resource of last resort for those without aid, would also be cut.
DCFS rolls have been expanding, and no one anticipates an end to the growth. Even with an increased budget, DCFS has a challenge ahead. "Everyone is saying how the increase is dramatic and ground breaking, but the DCFS has been slighted so many times that even this dramatic increase may in fact only be sufficient," says Jerome Stermer, president of the child advocacy group, Voices for Illinois Children (VIC).
Substitute care for children who cannot be left with their natural families is the fastest growing service provided by DCFS. Substitute care includes not only foster care, but also the care of children placed with relatives or in group homes. Currently more than 24,000 Illinois children live in substitute care. During the past year the number increased by 14.3 percent; over the past decade substitute care surged more than 70 percent.
The number of children in substitute care is expected to continue to rise. Officials from DCFS and VIC attribute the deluge to the recession, an increasing occurrence of drug and alcohol abuse within families and an increased awareness of and willingness to report abuse and neglect. Although the national recession is supposedly ending, poverty that sends young people streaming into the DCFS system is on the rise. "We are seeing an increasing pattern of poorer areas becoming even more destitute so that they no longer have the resources in health care, day care and other support services to sustain healthy families," says Malcolm Bush, senior vice president of VIC.
As the fastest growing DCFS service, substitute care is also the fastest growing portion of the DCFS budget. Substitute care spending in fiscal 1991 accounted for $283.4 million of the $365.3 million in general funds spent by DCFS. Agency spending for substitute care increased $208 million since 1982.
The majority of substitute care dollars, $211.2 million, pays for subsidies to foster homes, group homes and institutions. Administrative costs represent a smaller portion of substitute care expenditures, $59.2 million, but there is a growing need for caseworkers and other administrative workers. On a national average each child care caseworker services between 20 to 25 cases at a time. In some parts of Illinois, DCFS caseworkers handle 70 or more cases at a time.
Hiring more caseworkers to keep track of and care for Illinois children, however, is not a part of DCFS' proposed budget increase. Rather than hire more agency caseworkers to meet demands, DCFS now contracts for substitute care with private agencies that provide both foster homes and caseworkers to monitor progress. Contracting out for caseworker services and substitute care is expected to be more cost effective than directly serving the children through the overloaded agency.
In fact, the recent increases in the agency's budget haven't focused on enlarging the agency to accommodate the growing responsibilities as much as they have addressed compliance with the federal court consent decree that ended the B.H. v Johnson lawsuit, brought by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of more than 22,000 children under DCFS care. The DCFS proposed budget for 1993 includes $54 million in new money set aside to meet consent decree requirements for lowering caseloads, providing health care and improving education and other services to children in DCFS care.
DCFS also is attempting to prevent families from reaching the point where their children will need state-financed substitute care. The agency is focusing more effort on aiding intact families and solving their problems before children must be removed. DCFS employees are working with the State Board of Education to identify children at risk of abuse or neglect, offering alcohol and substance abuse assistance to families, and providing assistance in parenting skills and training in housekeeping.
Yet cuts in other public aid programs may inhibit DCFS initiatives to help families, according to VIC's Stermer. Edgar's proposed $200 million cut in Medicaid spending for adult health and dental care and a $10 million cut in the Department of Alcohol and Substance Abuse hits children through their families since the plight of ailing parents or siblings has a profound effect on the entire family unit. Cutting off employable adults from transitional assistance similarly affects children. Although those who lose benefits are single, their families will have the added burden of their care.
Edgar's 1993 budget also proposes cutting local governments' $237 million share of state income taxes. Further loss of revenue to municipalities will endanger spending for services like immunizations, education and crime prevention, needed for healthy families.
Stermer says the effects of the proposed budget on children and families must be measured broadly not program by program. "People tend to look at the budget in terms of winners and losers among certain agencies, when what they should be looking at is the cumulative effect on Illinois families and children," says Stermer. "When more families lose than win, it's a losing budget. And this one shows several signs of being a losing budget."
26/May 1992/Illinois Issues