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Herald & Review: State of the Standoff: Budget stalemate puts those in need at risk

DECATUR – As the birth of her first child drew near, Calleen Wrigley felt scared, yet reluctant, to let friends and family steer her through early motherhood.

The Decatur woman was single, but at 24, she was an adult.

“I didn’t want someone telling me what to do, but Kayden is the first baby I’ve ever been around,” Wrigley said. “I worried, ‘Will my child thrive in this world because of what I’ll do early on with him?’ ”

A friend suggested Healthy Families Illinois, a home visitation program for new and expectant parents at risk of parenting problems and offered locally through the Macon County Health Department. It provided Wrigley with a caseworker who gave information and options, not advice, and helped her find her “voice as a mom.”

Six months after her son’s birth, mother and child are doing well. “I am very involved in his development and feel confident he’s going to be OK,” Wrigley said.

Unfortunately, despite a longitudinal evaluation showing that program services are associated with optimal outcomes during a child’s first two years of life, Healthy Families Illinois is among many social service programs that have suffered as the state’s budget impasse has gone well into its second fiscal year.

More than 1 million people statewide have been affected by the budget crisis, according to one estimate.

Dianna Heyer, the health department’s administrator, said she had to reduce a separate family case management program by 500 cases last year while coping with multiple employee departures that followed the layoff of three clerical employees in October 2015.

“Unfortunately, the fear of what was going to happen with the (state) budget caused a number of people to leave employment here, and we held off on filling those positions,” Heyer said.

Two of those positions were in Healthy Families Illinois, thus reducing the number of families it could serve.

The department is in better shape and looking to fill some of those vacancies now, but many services to people in need across the state have gone away as Illinois lawmakers have failed to agree on a budget since June 30, 2015.

Agencies have soldiered on without payment for expenses incurred months earlier by extending their lines of credit, organizing fundraisers, furloughing staff and doubling up on duties, according to Judith Gethner, executive director of the Chicago-headquartered Illinois Partners for Human Service, and others.

“How would you operate your life without 12 months of income?” Gethner said. “The nonprofit has to find other resources to be able to sustain them when the government wasn’t paying them. … They didn’t know when the money was going to come.”

Social services lost

Decatur’s casualties include the health department’s Get Covered Illinois Program, which helped people get signed up for health insurance under the U.S. Affordable Care Act; Dove, Inc.’s longstanding community services program, which assisted Decatur’s neighborhood organizations; and a transitional living center Heritage Behavioral Health Center opened in 2015 to help keep people with mental disorders from going to nursing homes.

In Southern Illinois, administrators of the not-for-profit community-based healthcare provider Centerstone closed a 2-year-old critical care facility where up to eight people at a time could be counseled for mental distress and go to regroup for three to five days. It saved taxpayers millions from not having people show up at hospital emergency rooms.

Farther south, cities serviced by the Southern Seven Health Department saw their clinic hours reduced to four days a week, or three or two or even one day a week, as is the case for the main location in Ullin in Pulaski County.

In Peoria, the 41-year-old Center for Prevention of Abuse — which serves 5,000 women, men and children and seniors and those with disabilities in six counties — had to eliminate its Self Neglect program for 90 seniors and its Safe From The Start for children (serving about 40 children at any one time).

In Decatur, the Child 1st Center was forced to eliminate its Safe from the Start program two years before the impasse started because of reduced financial support from the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority. Safe from the Start focused on raising public awareness, training and outreach about the impact witnessing violence has on children 5 and younger.

The center’s move to a less-expensive building in late 2015, however, was a direct consequence of the budget crisis.

Executive Director Jean Moore said the costs of leasing space from Dove, Inc., at 800 W. Clay St. are 60 percent lower than they were at the previous location at North Water Street and East Garfield Avenue.

Other than that, Moore said she counts herself lucky.

Like mri, also known as Macon Resources, Inc., and Webster-Cantrell Hall, the Child 1st Center is protected by a consent decree that requires Illinois to pay for services provided to people over whom the state has guardianship.

“We have a contract with the Department of Children and Family Services to do investigations,” she said. “That’s how child advocacy centers have been included.”

Such centers provide children who have been abused a safe place to be interviewed about what happened to them and work with the criminal justice system in building criminal cases against their abusers.

Even so, CEO Martin Harris of Webster-Cantrell Hall said the state owes his child welfare agency more than $127,000 for residential services it has provided for two males and two females at any given time since July 1, 2016, under contract with the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice and sent a letter to Gov. Bruce Rauner about it last week.

He said the situation, if not remedied, would eventually force him to borrow money to keep providing the services. In the meantime, roof replacement, a playground upgrade and other needed improvements to Webster-Cantrell’s facilities will have to wait.

Harris also echoed concerns expressed by Moore and Dreux Lewandowski, mri’s executive director, that the quality of services still suffers because the state of Illinois has not provided adequate cost-of-living increases under the consent degree.

“We can’t keep up with the government sector, much less the private sector, in salary, benefits or pension,” Harris said. “We lose staff all the time after we’ve provided the basic training. The shame of it is the government knows this and are not addressing it.”

Executive Director Diane Drew said the Community Home Environmental Learning Project, also known as CHELP, has been somewhat insulated by a 2015 court order requiring the state to pay agencies for services given to Medicaid clients.

CHELP helps aging people stay in their own homes longer as they lose the ability to care for themselves and “60 percent of what we bill for is Medicaid,” Drew said.

“We have not had to reduce services as of yet.”

Cathy Byers, executive director of Growing Strong Sexual Assault Center, said a budget deal could allow her to restore operating funding for items such as for office supplies and building maintenance.

She’s already been able to restore three positions – two prevention educators and a counselor – that went dark for seven months in 2016 until she could reallocate federal dollars in the new budget year for those salaries. She added that Growing Strong also was able to add two counselors in November thanks, in part, to help from the DeWitt County Mental Health Board.

“We don’t want to rely on state funding to pay salaries,” Byers said. “That’s what got us into a place where we had to lay off some amazing employees. I’m just glad we were able to get them back.”

Executive Director Carol Merna said the 105 staff members at Peoria’s Center for Prevention of Abuse – which operated on a $4.5 million budget — helped find ways to keep the 40 percent of missing state funding as far away from the clients as possible.

The Southern Seven Health Department administrators, for another example, combined the duties of its nursing staff that was once at 15 a few years ago into a staff of eight.

Some other social service agencies were not as fortunate. The Mahoney Transitional Living home, a facility in Rosiclare for homeless 16- to 24-year-olds, succumbed to the budget fiasco, closing last February. For a while this past year, the not-for-profit Stopping Woman Abuse Now domestic violence shelter in Olney, in Richland County, closed, but is open again.

Just because the legislators passed a stopgap funding measure did not mean the money was released the next day, Gethner said. Often, recipients had to wait even longer, adding to their economic stress and load.

“These guys are living under uncertainty,” she said, adding that boards of directors collaborate with agency heads to create “financially sustainable plans going forward, and they’re realizing we have to close up programs,” she said.

“So oftentimes, they’re having to work together to make these critical decisions about maintaining programs and staffs during a time when they are not getting reimbursed.

“We don’t know with certainty when they’re going to come and give us January to June of this year … (and have to make difficult decisions in the meantime) because the board does not want to operate on this ‘wait and see.’”

While she’d like to bring back the community services program in Decatur, Dove Executive Director Christine Gregory said since the state’s stopgap budget ran out Dec. 31, she is most concerned about keeping her agency’s domestic violence shelter and Homeward Bound supportive services for the homeless going.

“We’re seeing an increased demand for these services, and we’ve already done all the belt-tightening we can do,” she said.

Candance Clevenger, CEO and president of Heritage Behavior Health Center, said things haven’t gotten any better since she transferred psychiatric services to Crossing Healthcare last spring and closed the transitional living center in October.

“It’s hard to plan what you’re doing when you haven’t had a state budget for so long,” Clevenger said. “You’re not as willing to take risks or move in new directions to meet needs because you just don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Gethner’s agency is one of those entities — Voices for Illinois Children and the Sparrow Coalition of Southern Illinois are others — that had made it their mission to track and tabulate the cost of legislators’ inability to agree to a budget.

Illinois Partners for Human Service created what it calls a “heat map” to show the impact of the state’s slow pay to social service agencies, via communities, legislative districts, programs, for instance.

The Center for Prevention of Abuse’s Merna said not knowing also didn’t help her staff with any kind of planning. They were able to absorb the 40-some children served by the loss of the Safe From The Start program (which cost $10,000 a month) and seniors served by the $52,000 Self Neglect program into other programs at the facility.

That agency primarily serves clients in Peoria, Woodford and Pekin counties and serves seniors in parts of Fulton, Marshall and Stark counties.

“We continue to root for our legislators, but compromise is a very important piece of that, and we don’t see a whole lot of compromise in the upper levels of leadership,” Merna said.

One million people

More than 1 million people have been affected by cuts to social service agencies, ranging from those that offer services for mental health services and outreaches to youth and families, according to an Associated Press report quoting a United Way source.

Gethner agreed with that assessment, noting that it’s hard to come by a specific measure of the impact. She noted that there are about 400,000 state employees, some of whose jobs have been impacted. That estimate of one million people impacted reflects the notion that about a third of those accessing human services are affected in some way.

“It’s a third of the people that are served — it’s huge,” she said.

Toni Hayden, executive director of the United Way of Jackson County, said she’s heard of several agencies dropping programs and facing closure on a day-to-day basis.

“We have several agencies that have had to drop programs, which in turn is leaving clients with nowhere to go,” Hayden said. “If some of these agencies can’t get their state funding, it’s going to be basically detrimental in this area, because there is not a lot of services down here as it is.”

In Southern Illinois, one of those agencies particularly hard-hit was Centerstone, a not-for-profit provider of community-based behavioral health care for 14,000 people a year inside in the state. It has operations in Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and Florida. Its sites in Southern Illinois are in Alton in Madison County; Carbondale in Jackson County; Marion in Williamson County; and West Frankfort in Franklin County.

Early on in the budget chaos, agency executives made the decision to drop the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, not because it received any state funding for it, but because officials made the calculated decision to conserve their resources, Chief Executive Officer John Markley said.

This past summer, though, agency officials decided to close the Carterville facility, he said.

“All of this chaos, if you will, adds chaos to our environment and to our industry where the people, in terms of developing services and service continuum that makes sense, service continuum that has quality, service continuum that lower costs, it prohibits us from being able to be that because we have no commitment from our state,” Markley said. “And that to me, as a taxpayer, first off, is unacceptable.”

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