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Rated PG: Don't let child welfare tip too far

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When I hear somebody use the term “tipping point,” I usually think of it as bad news. More often than not, the person is saying something has reached the point of no return.

During my research into child abuse and neglect for the four-part series The Peorian published last week called “Who Is Protecting the Kids?” I heard the term used a couple times by people whose career is protecting the kids. And what they were saying is not good.

Child welfare workers, the people who are usually the first responders in child abuse and neglect case, are not well paid in the state of Illinois. That is especially true of caseworkers in the private sector, those working for such not-for-profit agencies as Children’s Home, Lutheran Social Services and the Center for Youth & Family Solutions.

The tipping point has been reached at some of those agencies that rely on what funding they get from the state and from United Way donations to pay the wages of their caseworkers. They cannot accept more cases without more caseworkers, yet they cannot afford to hire more caseworkers.

These are the folks who often go into volatile situations to remove a child from an abusive home. It is hard to imagine many situations that could be more volatile, more upsetting for all involved, more potentially dangerous than removing a child from the arms of his or her parents. Yet these caseworkers do not carry weapons like the police officers (who make far more money) who often accompany them.

To boot, these caseworkers are forced to make decisions, often split-second decisions, or do long range work that will affect the lives of these children and their families forever. Forever.

These agencies also pick up the tab on many other items needed for these children and their families, such as counseling and food and pharmaceuticals, with the hope the state will be able to reimburse them.

Yet since 1999, the last 15 years, the rate the state pays these agencies has increased a total of 3 percent. Not 3 percent annually, but 3 percent total. Meanwhile, the country’s gross domestic product rate has increased 27 percent in the same period.

The budget for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services has often been among the first cut or at least left unchanged during this century.

The state of Illinois has cut drastically the money spent on mental health services. Of course the number of mental health problems facing residents of the state has not dropped; if anything, it has increased, particularly among young children.

What this means for the private agencies is they have to continue to find ways to be as efficient as they can, make cuts where they can, and still do as good of a job, if not better. They seem to be getting it done, perhaps out of pride but likely because the child welfare field is much more professional than it was even 20 years ago, the experts say.

But one caseworker told me if funding doesn’t increase and the private agencies have to turn away contracts, the state will have to pick up the slack, which it can’t really afford to do either. “It’s not a good situation we’re in right now. We are trying to do our best. But if we are going to keep doing our best and attracting the best caseworkers for it, the funding has to follow or somebody is going to suffer. In this case, the kids,” he said.

“The problem is that these kids don’t have any powerful lobbyists helping them.”

The last statement sounds cynical. But it’s realistic.

DCFS once again this year asked for an increase in its budget and this year Gov. Quinn actually kept it in the budget he proposed to the General Assembly. The more cynical of us might think, “Well, why wouldn’t he? It’s an election year. If it stays in he looks good. If the General Assembly cuts it out, he can point that out and still look good.”

Whatever the reason, it’s nice the increase is still in the budget. But as another child welfare worker I interviewed said, “We hope the state’s fiscal crisis hasn’t already caused some of these kids to fall through the cracks.”

Tipping something too far may cause that to happen. I hope something can get done to fix this before it reaches that point.


About the Author
Paul Gordon is the editor of The Peorian after spending 29 years of indentured servitude at the Peoria Journal Star. He’s an award-winning writer, raconteur and song-and-dance man. He also went to a high school whose team name is the Alices (that’s Vincennes Lincoln High School in Indiana; you can look it up).