Catholic Charities’ clients, staff fear proposed state cuts

Photo Caption: Kristy Hemmele, a foster parent, shares her personal testimony with the audience.

By: By Jared Olar

Catholics Charities of the Diocese of Peoria and its 30,000 clients are keenly feeling the effects of the State of Illinois’ budget crisis.

Unless the Illinois General Assembly votes to restore funding during emergency budget sessions, which began Tuesday, Catholic Charities and other social service agencies must drastically reduce services and staff this summer.

The slashing of social service spending comes as state legislators and Gov. Pat Quinn work to create a balanced budget and eliminate a $9 billion deficit. Social service providers dubbed the proposed plan “the Doomsday Budget.”

“Why does it have to be the most vulnerable that pay the price of Illinois’ political and budget crisis?” asked Tricia Fox, assistant executive director of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Peoria, in a June 17 statement.

Her comments followed notification to the agency of more than $1.2 million in contract cuts from the Department of Children and Family Services and the Department of Human Services.

Those cuts alone would affect more than 7,500 central Illinois children, youths and families served by Catholic Charities.
Since then, Catholic Charities has been informed of another $4.8 million in cuts, affecting 975 additional children in Catholic Charities’ foster care and residential programs, as well as 382 at-risk youth served by its Crisis Intervention program.

All cuts would take effect July 1 unless the state restores funding.

“This isn’t a game to us or the people we serve,” Fox said. “We can’t provide the services without the funding.” Many of the agency’s 450 employees are concerned about their jobs, she said, “and we serve 30,000 individuals in central Illinois who are unsure if the services and support they need will still be there.”

According to Fox, programs that Catholic Charities would have to eliminate include Parenting Education, Counseling Services, Abstinence Education, Adoption Respite in LaSalle, Community Area Projects, Unified Delinquency Intervention Services in Bloomington, and System of Care. Foster care, adoption, Guardian Angel Home, and Crisis Intervention would also feel the impact of funding loss.

“I do think that all this ties to treating people — God’s people — with love and charity,” Fox told The Catholic Post. “I don’t think anybody does that better than foster parents who take care of children whose lives have been shattered and give them hope.”

On Monday, Fox joined representatives of Peoria’s three other major social service agencies — Counseling and Family Services, Children’s Home, and Lutheran Social Services of Illinois — in calling on elected leaders to approve a budget that provides for abused and neglected children, the poor, and Illinois citizens most in need.

At a press conference at the Hult Health Education Center, four foster mothers and adoptive mothers also gave personal and at times tearful testimonies of how the proposed cuts would affect their families and the children in their care.

The effect of the budget cuts will be felt most severely by foster care children, said Michelle Baker, a Catholic Charities foster parent.

“They are victimized in their biological homes and will continue to be,” Baker said, “because we can’t provide services for them.”

Baker and the other foster parents said that less state support for foster families will result in fewer people willing to become foster parents, which would harm even more children.

The foster parents and agency representatives did not ask for an increase in state funding, but only the restoration of 2008 funding levels, which they said were already inadequate.

“When children come into DCFS’s care, they become the State of Illinois’ children — not Catholic children, not Lutheran children, not Children’s Home’s and not Counseling and Family Services’,” so it is the state’s obligation to provide for those children, said Clete Winkelmann, president and CEO of The Children’s Home Association of Illinois.

All four Peoria agencies together are looking at the loss of a total of $13 million in funding. More than 1,000 foster children and 600 foster homes in the Tri-County area alone would be affected, said Winkelmann.

The funding reductions include a 50 percent cut in the monthly expense reimbursement to foster parents, from $500 to $250 per child. In addition, said Winkelmann, agencies would be forced to cut staff, resulting in a ratio of 50 children per case worker. Currently the ratio is 15 children per case worker.

“Not only does this ratio violate federal court consent decree, it will diminish the counseling support foster parents currently receive,” Winkelmann said. “It seems to me that a short-term savings is going to create a long-term debt,” he added, explaining that at-risk children who don’t receive care will continue the cycles of abuse, poverty and crime as adults.

The agency representatives at Monday’s press conference called on citizens to contact their state senators and representatives, the governor’s office, and Democrat and Republican party leaders in Springfield to communicate their concerns about social services spending cuts.

State Sen. Dave Koehler (D-Peoria) spoke briefly at the press conference. He expressed his support for increasing the state income tax to help fund social service programs, but said a tax increase is unpopular and a political risk for legislators hoping to be re-elected.

“We have to stop worrying about November of 2010 and start worrying about June of 2009,” Koehler said.

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