By Jamey Dunn
Lawmakers hope to get additional funding approved for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, but if they fail, the department will lay off two-thirds of its staff in a few months.
When Gov. Pat Quinn vetoed money for prisons and other state corrections facilities from the budget approved by the General Assembly, he called on lawmakers to put that money into DCFS to prevent hundreds of layoffs. The same budget cut nearly $90 million from DCFS. Legislation to put some of that money back never made it to a floor vote during the January lame-duck session. The measure up for consideration contained other budget items that met opposition. However, Chicago Democratic Sen. Heather Steans, who sponsored the bill, said she thinks there is support for passing an additional $25 million for the agency early in the new legislative session. “I do think there’s general agreement on the DCFS funding,” she said.
Chicago Democratic Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, the former chair of the House Human Services Budgeting Committee, agreed. “I think that there is a relatively strong commitment to do this.”
If the money does not come through, DCFS plans to lay off nearly 2,000 employees this spring. “The answer to the what-if questions is that if the budget cuts are not restored, that sometime in March or thereafter we will have to lay off about two-thirds of our staff statewide,” said Dave Clarkin, a spokesman for DCFS.
DCFS currently has about 600 investigators; Clarkin said the agency hopes to avoid laying off any of them. “It’s a primary responsibility of the department. It is something that by statute can’t be outsourced or done by anybody else,” he said of the investigators’ work. The department is restructuring its staff in an effort to put more than 100 additional investigators on the front line.
The possibility of mass layoffs comes after a year when DCFS saw in increase in abuse- and neglect-related deaths, and a spike in the number of downstate abuse cases. According to DCFS, neglect or abuse played a factor in 90 deaths last year. The department is still investigating 60 other cases. “Once those investigations are closed, we will have seen the highest number of deaths we have seen in Illinois in 32 years,” Clarkin said. “Child abuse generally and sex abuse in particular are both on the rise.” From July 2012 to October 2012, the department's abuse hotline received 25,348 reports of suspected abuse, compared with 24,053 during the same period in 2011. Last year, 35 downstate counties had abuse and neglect rates of more than double the statewide average. Cook County had rates just below the state average.
Suffocation by neglect was the leading cause of death in cases the department investigated in 2012. The second leading cause was abuse, and the third was inadequate supervision. “Most deaths occurred when parents, ignoring the advice of the American Academy of Pediatrics and safety experts, slept with a newborn or infant in their bed, rolling over on the child in the night and smothering her or him. In other instances, parents ignored safety warnings and allowed a newborn or infant to sleep with a blanket, on an adult mattress or couch, or on their stomachs, suffocating the child,” a prepared statement from DCFS said. Clarkin said the department is making efforts to educate the public on the proper sleeping conditions for newborns, as well as ways to prevent child abuse and neglect in their communities.