At-risk children could end up paying a steep price for changes at the state’s Department of Children and Family Services, the agency’s local frontline workers fear.
A reorganization of the agency, combined with expected employee layoffs, could result in more children in harm’s way or entering the foster care system; fewer staff members handling larger caseloads; and higher costs to taxpayers, workers said.
The reorganization gutted the agency’s Intact Family Services, the program that provides at-risk children and their families with services specifically designed to prevent abuse and neglect and entry into the foster care system.
“The IFS program allowed the children to remain in the home of their parents while allowing the department to refer the family for interventions that would target the problem and work to alleviate the risk to the children,” local DCFS worker Tim Rice said.
The reorganization shifted such services to private agencies and tightened the eligibility criteria for services. To qualify under the new system, private agencies can provide services only in the instance of an indicated finding, or substantiated allegation of abuse or neglect, and the meeting of at least one of five special circumstances such as a child younger than the age of six in the home.
“Tighter criteria were designed to focus on those at greatest risk,” DCFS spokesman Kendall Marlowe said.
The private agencies are also encouraged financially to limit services to five to seven months, whereas DCFS services were provided for six to 18 months on average.
“The rationale for that, broadly stated, is that many times the good we’re able to do is done toward the beginning of a case,” Marlowe said.
Local DCFS workers believe the redesigned intact services will result in increased abuse and neglect and more children placed in foster care, a far more traumatic and expensive option.
“The decision to eliminate the IFS program within DCFS is wrong,” Rice said. “It is dangerous, and more children will be at risk of harm or they will be at risk of removal from their families.”
The agency’s reorganization and planned layoffs came after drastic budget cuts earlier this year, Marlowe said. The governor’s introduced budget cut DCFS by $36 million, a loss the agency expected to handle by cutting contracts rather than personnel.
The General Assembly, however, added another $50 million to the budget-slashing for a total of an $86 million cut to the DCFS budget. Of that additional $50 million, $27 million was taken directly from personnel.
“This was action taken by the General Assembly. In effect, we were mandated to spend $27 million less on personnel,” Marlowe said.
Letters were sent to 568 people telling them their positions would be eliminated; 285 of those were offered jobs that would “properly staff the frontlines,” leaving a net loss of 283 jobs because of the reorganization and layoffs to come, he said.
Help for the frontlines, where investigators are carrying more cases than allowed by federal consent decree, has yet to come.
Local investigators are opening an average of 15 new abuse/neglect investigations each month, local child protection supervisor Stephanie Grigsby said.
In Franklin and Williamson counties, more than 100 reports of abuse or neglect come in each month. Those reports are investigated by seven investigators in an office that when fully staffed has almost double that number.
“Laying off DCFS workers at a time when the agency is not fully staffed puts more children at risk,” Rice said. “DCFS workers, both investigators and foster care caseworkers, have caseloads that are difficult to manage because the number of cases per worker is too high.”
Still, DCFS staffers are preparing to say goodbye to even more co-workers once the planned layoffs take effect.
Ginger Smith, a child protection specialist at the Murphysboro office, is one of those who are slated for layoff.
“I was supposed to be laid off Oct. 1; now the date is undetermined,” she said. “This is an emotional, stressful job anyway, even more so now because of the uncertainty.”
Layoffs are still expected to happen “at some point,” Marlowe said.
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