Federal Judge rules that state budget cuts violate consent decree, will do "irreparable harm"

CHICAGO - Following an extraordinary, late afternoon, two-hour hearing on Monday, June 29th, U.S. District Court Judge John F. Grady today ordered Illinois' child welfare agency - the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) - to comply with all parts of a court-monitored consent decree that ensures the safety and protects the constitutional rights of children in the state system. Judge Grady's order recognizes that the State of Illinois would be in violation of the consent decree to which it agreed and cause an irreparable harm to the 16,000 children under the care of DCFS if the so-called "doomsday" budget adopted by the state legislature is allowed to go into effect at midnight, July 1st.

The only witness at the hearing was Mr. Erwin McEwen, the current director of DCFS. Mr. McEwen testified in detail about the detrimental impact on the 16,000 children in the care of his agency. He noted, for example, that the proposed budget cuts would force DCFS to eliminate almost all services to children with special needs and families that need financial and other types of support in order to care for children in foster care. Director McEwen acknowledged in his testimony that the elimination of this assistance and these services would great hardship for many of these families, forcing some to cease their care as foster parents. The Director cited academic studies demonstrating that causing children in foster care - who already have been separated from their parents - to be separated from a safe, loving foster parent would cause damage that could not be repaired even if his agency's budget was later restored.

"The Judge made clear that this state's budget will not 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.

"The compelling testimony by the Director made clear that the looming budget cuts would create ripples of damage that would plague the state for years to come and cause the state to be out of compliance with the consent decree. We are pleased that Judge Grady acted swiftly and decisively in order to minimize any harm to this most vulnerable population. "

Judge Grady's order mandates that the state comply with all provisions of the consent decree, including: maintaining all the programs and services that DCFS directs to fulfill the detailed requirements of the consent decree; prohibiting DCFS from increasing caseloads on caseworkers and investigators beyond the ratios set forth in the consent decree; continuing critical monitoring services by outside experts designed to insure the health and safety of children under DCFS care; and, maintaining critical, individualized clinical and social assessments for each child entering the DCFS system. Judge Grady also ordered that a copy of his judicial order be emailed to all placement and service providers affiliated with DCFS so that critical services and programs for children under the agency's care are not disrupted.

Director McEwen's testimony revealed real threats to children in Illinois as a result of the proposed budget called the "doomsday" budget in the media and in the corridors of the statehouse. He noted that the caseloads of caseworkers would more than triple to 50 children. And, he observed that the caseloads of DCFS investigators would nearly double to 20 active cases at any one time. When asked about both of these figures, the Director noted that they not only violate the consent decree, but would cause a serious risk to children in Illinois.

"Across Illinois tonight, we hope children and caregivers can sleep more soundly and more comfortably," said Heidi Dalenberg of the Chicago office of Schiff Hardin, a cooperating counsel on the case. "The court has ensured that no personal doomsday will be visited on these children and their families."