Peoria Journal Star: State Budget woes take a toll on The Center for Prevention of Abuse
By Chris Kaergard Journal Star political reporter
PEORIA — The Peoria County mother first came to the Center for Prevention of Abuse more than a decade ago to get aid for herself and her infant daughter.
From the moment she set foot in the center, the family received it — from an emergency phone to assistance for filing from an order for protection. A counselor from the center came to her home and helped her craft a safety plan to protect herself from her abuser, and employees gave her continuous support through a multi-year court battle, from coping techniques to literally holding her hand through proceedings. And that help has continued.
But that mother is one of many former and current clients concerned with the financial straits the center finds itself in as the state of Illinois budget impasse drags on.
At a time when the state has $12.9 billion in unpaid bills — money owed for work already performed last year or this year by agencies like the center that have state contracts, some $1,000 in past-due bills for every man, woman and child in the Land of Lincoln — the amount owed to the center can still seem staggering.
It’s $530,000 behind in payments from state coffers for services, from adult protective services and senior services to aid to adults living with a disability who have been abused to domestic violence programs and preventative education programs.
And then there’s the $203,000 intended for domestic violence and family-centered shelter programs that officials learned recently — after being reassured to the contrary for months — was not actually included in last summer’s stopgap budget.
It’s “an extraordinary amount” to learn will be missing, center executive director Carol Merna says — more than the organization received last year during its biggest fundraiser, the annual duck race.
While stable finances and reserves leading up to the 21-month-and-counting budget impasse have allowed the organization that serves six central Illinois counties to continue operations without cutting programs and staff to stay afloat, “that stability has been our only stability because the state has not provided us with any during that time,” Merna says. “They have owed us money and then they have been made due. And then they have owed us more money and they have made due with some. It’s been very erratic. But funding has pretty much stopped at this point once the stopgap expired.”
Each day that passes without a budget or an infusion of funds from elsewhere creates worries at an organization that right now is, at best, “OK. Teetering on OK. But OK,” Merna says.
And it’s a worry for those who have been helped, like the mother, whose contact with the center continued years after they helped her get herself away from her abusive situation.
That meant counseling for her and her daughter.
“She would get the help she needed to help cope with what was happening to her … and I, at the same time, they counseled and took care of me and empowered me and gave me hope.”
The mother coached her elder daughters through their fears as they still lived in the same community as the abuser. And other lessons stuck with her that she still uses to aid her family.
“I was able to keep rebuilding myself … and they continued the education after we were able to start the healing process,” she said. “Part of that was training us on how to grow us up (mother and daughter) on how we’re going to move past this.”
As a teen, her youngest daughter is now having flashbacks to the incidents of abuse, something the center prepared her for so that the two of them together can work through it.
“I know how to respond to it now,” the mother says with pride.
To assure their continued ability to respond to families like that one — the center sees roughly 5,000 clients a year and provides preventative education for 33,000 schoolchildren annually — officials there on Tuesday are launching an online fundraiser with the theme “Be the Bridge,” and encouraging supporters to craft homemade signs with a heart and half-circle bridge over the phrase #iamthebridge to post on social media to encourage others to donate to center operations via Facebook or the group’s website, www.centerforpreventionofabuse.org
It’s a way others in the community can offer their support, Merna said. And, the mother said, a chance for everyone to remember the special ways the center can help every individual.
“Everybody’s story is unique. every circumstance is unique — because we’re (all) people.”
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