June 29, 2009 5:04 pm

Budget cuts endanger lives of children in child welfare system, ACLU of Illinois tells federal court

CHICAGO – Budget cuts forced by Governor Pat Quinn and the Illinois General Assembly endanger the safety and lives of children in the state’s foster care system. The draconian budget cuts set to go into effect on July 1st severely impair the ability of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) to ensure the well-being and welfare of vulnerable children in their care and violate a federal court agreement that is responsible for transforming the previously-troubled agency. These charges form the basis of an emergency motion filed today by the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois seeking to enforce critical terms of the consent decree monitored by the U.S. District Court in Chicago. Judge John Grady will hear arguments in support of the ACLU of Illinois’ efforts to enforce the decree on Monday, June 29th at 5:00 p.m. in Room 2201 of the Dirksen Federal Building in downtown Chicago.

“The Governor and the legislature need to understand that this state’s budget cannot be balanced on the backs of its most vulnerable residents – children in foster care,” said Benjamin Wolf, Associate Legal Director of the ACLU of Illinois announcing the filing of the complaint. “This state recognized when it agreed to the consent decree that the child welfare system was a disaster, and they agreed to specific steps to reform DCFS. Now is not the time to retreat from that commitment and derail this important process.”

In recent days, the full impact that the 50% cut in DCFS budget will have on safety and well-being of children in foster care in Illinois has become clear. The Governor’s Chief of Staff estimated, as an example, that the caseload of DCFS staff workers’ will more than triple, from 15 children (at present) to as many as 50 children. Likewise, the budget cuts nearly double the DCFS investigator caseloads, from 11 active investigations to 20 active cases at any one time. Both of these figures violate the consent decree and place children at risk since caseworkers and investigators do not have the time and attention to focus on the needs of an individual child.

Taken together, these cuts and others will put DCFS in violation of federal law and the consent decree, according to the ACLU of Illinois. That view is shared, apparently, by the current Director of DCFS, Erwin McEwen. In a June 5, 2009 letter describing the impact of the budget cuts, Mr. McEwen wrote the Director of the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget declaring that the cuts place DCFS “in violation of the law and Consent Decrees regarding services to protected classes of Illinois citizens,” and that DCFS would “fail in its ability to reasonably insure the safety of the children and families we serve.”

The ACLU today asked federal district court judge John Grady to enforce the terms of the decrees currently in place, and ensure that children under the care of DCFS are protected and get the necessary services and safety they require. The decree grew out of negotiations around a case filed originally in 1988, and now called B.H. v. McEwen. The process of implementing the consent decree is hailed by foster care experts and others across the nation as a success, transforming the DCFS from an agency that mishandled cases, lost control of children in their care, and failed to provide adequate resources, into an agency with critical checks and balances and outside evaluators to asses the adequacy of its performance. The ACLU makes clear in the filing today that this progress is threatened by the budget cuts at DCFS.

“No one wants to return to the dark days of the 1980s and 1990s when the newspapers were filled with stories about children under the care of DCFS – and who should have been under the care of DCFS – being neglected and abused,” said Heidi Dalenberg of the Chicago office of Schiff Hardin, a cooperating counsel on the case.

“Whatever difficulty results in our state from the inability of the Governor and politicians to agree on a way forward with the budget, these most vulnerable children should not bear the brunt of the harm caused by these political disagreements,” added Dallenberg.

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Other Resources:

Emergency Motion to Enforce Consent Decree
“ACLU files suit for foster care funding,” Chicago Tribune