For all of the political chicanery associated with Illinois, its services to youth involved with the child welfare system are regarded by many to be the gold standard among the 50 states. And with the help of some serious foundation investments in reform, its juvenile justice system has made notable strides.
So it does not bode well for youth workers across the country that, faced with a large budget gap for next year, the state general assembly signed off on a budget that does nothing short of decimate the programs that have helped Illinois stand out. The Department of Human Services, facing a $2.24 billion cut, would lose nine youth programs and would be forced to make enormous cuts to 20 others.
"In Illinois we have a good system because the state invested general revenue dollars where feds weren't going to help," said Dave McClure, executive director of Youth Services Bureau of Illinois Valley. "Illinois spent its own money; now it's taking it back."
The Department of Human Services circulated this memo listing youth programs on the chopping block. Among those reduced under this budget are delinquency prevention services, YouthBuild programs (at least state funds for them), and Redeploy Illinois, a highly successful juvenile justice pilot program that only recently had been approved for statewide replication.
The new world order would also include foster care caseloads of 50 instead of the current 15 (read that again), and would not include the 36 child advocacy centers that have been built up around the state. Those centers allowed trained experts to interview children involved in abuse/neglect cases while law enforcement, legal counsel and social service staff observed. The total annual price tag on that program is $4 million.
The budget bill is headed to the desk of Gov. Pat Quinn (D). He hates the bill, which basically took his proposal and cut it in half, but he's in a huge bind. To reject the spending cuts, he has to persuade the assembly to approve new taxes that would provide a higher level of revenue for the state.
Without new taxes, some youth work veterans tell us, Quinn has no choice but to sign the bill as is. And you can imagine how popular the endorsement of a tax hike is at the moment, particularly for those in the general assembly with their eyes on a run at a Congressional seat.
The reaction of youth work executives around the state is something equivalent to the field of the stock market crash. A call to McClure at Youth Services Bureau of Illinois Valley revealed a rambling, voicemail greeting that explained it might take him awhile to return calls as he attempted to save entire parts of his organization.
"Help us ... if you can," McClure said mid-message, followed by a long pause. His organization almost certainly will eliminate park programs it operates in some communities that do not have their own parks and recreation departments, a teen after-school program and the therapy sessions it provides to abused youths.
"I've been here since 1978," McClure said when we finally caught up to him. "Now I'm taking apart much of what I've built up over the last 30 years."
In Bloomington, Project Oz Executive Director Peter Rankaitis said that reputation notwithstanding, he's known the legislature was okay with cutting human services. "It's been building for a long time," said Rankaitis, who will lose all funding for a juvenile diversion program run by Project Oz. "Human services over the last seven years has been taking cuts. My state-funded services for runaway youth gets less actual money than they did in 2000 for the same services."
Meanwhile, the need for services is only going up. Rankaitis said he's getting 10 applicants for every one he can accept into his transitional living program for homeless youth. Before this year the ratio was closer to 3:1.
Illinois' budgetary affairs will have no direct effect on any other state. But if this happens in a state with a good track record on investing in youth - with a plethora of youth advocates and lobbyists - in the state the president is from, what will 2010 look like in other states?