With no signs of a long-term budget agreement, or break in the political stalemate, contractors with Illinois’ Dept. of Children and Family Services are being told to prepare for 10 percent cuts.
The threat of reduced services comes as a federal judge mandated the state continue the same level of care for vulnerable children during the ongoing impasse as it did at the end of the previous fiscal year, which ended June 30. The agency has given no indication of when the 10 percent reduction in contracts would be implemented, leaving child welfare service providers little direction for how to plan their own budgets.
The order from DCFS to its contractors does not contradict Judge Jorge Alonso’s ruling on the existing consent decree, which was intended to provide consistency to service providers. The threat of reductions adds to the uncertainty many child welfare providers, including Children’s Home and Aid, have faced since July 1. Those groups are now left to balance maintaining the same level of services for now, while potentially facing a condensed schedule later in the fiscal year to enact drastic cuts.
“Where the contracts, I think, create some confusion, is while they don’t deal immediately with July 1, they give us a number to work toward for the entire fiscal year, and that number is certainly being reduced,” said Jassen Strokosch, with Children’s Home and Aid.
Strokosch said his agency has contracts with DCFS to continue providing payments to foster care families or investigating allegations of child abuse or neglect in the short-term in compliance with Judge Alonso’s mandate. But he said administrators at Children’s Home and Aid remain unclear on several fronts, including what services would be cut, and whether its current court-mandated contracts will end if there’s a budget agreement from state lawmakers and the governor.
Strokosch also doesn’t know if Children’s Home and Aid will have to eventually absorb the full 10 percent in reductions later in the fiscal year, or if it should begin implementing those cuts immediately.
“In response to ongoing budget negotiations, we have been required to initiate steps to responsibly manage the departments (sic) finances and have cut contracts by 10 percent,” DCFS spokeswoman Veronica Resa said in an emailed statement responding to questions about how the department settled on telling contractors to cut 10 percent when there hasn’t been a set budget agreement.
“They don’t yet know, and so we don’t yet know, what they want to do 10 percent fewer of if that indeed would be the full amount that’s cut for the full year’s budget,” said Marge Berglind, President of the Child Care Association of Illinois, which represents the political and financial interests of many DCFS contractors.
But not all observers are sure the cuts will happen.
American Civil Liberties Union attorney Ben Wolf has taken DCFS to court several times over the past few decades over the quality of services provided to youth. He said he didn’t believe the 10 percent cuts to be “real” and that amount could change depending on the overall state budget that may eventually be adopted.
“It certainly would be bad for the children if some of the better non-profit agencies started to have to feel like they can’t plan for the future and they have to lay off staff,” Wolf said. “Any tentative, interim, proposed cuts that the people have heard about will not be maintained if they are inconsistent with the consent decree, which means they should not be maintained if they cause harm to children in the custody of the state.”
Wolf said he can’t go back to Judge Alonso over the possibility of budget cuts yet. But he’ll be watching to see if child welfare providers end up cutting their services now in response to the threat of cuts and if those reductions in services end up violating the federal judge’s court order that was intended to maintain a level of consistency during budget negotiations between Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democratic legislative leaders Michael Madigan and John Cullerton. Both Rauner and Madigan have said they’re open to a full state budget that reflects cuts in government services and increases in revenue, but no specific agreement has been reached.
“The future in Illinois is somewhat uncertain but I think the protections of our consent decree are quite a bit more certain than most of the Illinois budget,” Wolf said.
Tony Arnold covers Illinois politics for WBEZ. Follow him @tonyjarnold.
WBEZ’s Shannon Heffernan contributed reporting to this story. Follow her @shannon_h.