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ACLU concerned with priorities in DCFS budget

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6.8 DCFS

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. - The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services is one of the few agencies getting a funding boost in the next fiscal year. However, advocates say it won't be enough to keep all children safe.

ACLU Illinois says DCFS had poor planning going into this budget process. Heidi Dalenberg feels the agency tends to operate in an emergency environment, stretching dollars as far as they can.

The ACLU Institutional Reform Project believes DCFS officials haven't adequately planned for the large number of youth expected in their system by the end of the 2022 fiscal year.

If DCFS doesn't plan for the right number of kids, Dalenberg says it won't have enough money to help everyone.

"Even with the current number of kids that we have in care, we don't have enough resources of the right types and in the right places to take care of them appropriately. And part of the problem there is wages," Dalenberg said.

She explained there are local providers working for youth with less serious issues and facilities caring for children with complex problems. However, Dalenberg notes neither area can keep staff right now due to low pay and demanding roles for employees.

$340 million increase since Pritzker took office

Still, DCFS Communications Director Bill McCaffrey says Gov. JB Pritzker has increased the department's budget by $340 million since taking office. DCFS is set to receive $1.5 billion from the budget lawmakers approved last week.

Yet, the ACLU says the problem isn't necessarily where the agency is putting the state's dollars. They argue the issue is underinvestment overall.

Dalenberg understands Illinois continues to face fiscal issues. However, she says DCFS must address its old computer system that makes it hard for providers to help youth. She also explained it's hard to keep good caseworkers because of the poor and outdated rate structure.

The ACLU suggests community-based services could be the best option moving forward.

"It is economical. It is fiscally responsible," Dalenberg said. "But, it isn't happening because we're constantly trying to carry forward this old cumbersome Rube Goldburg kind of DCFS agency that's still mired in the past and needs to completely retool for the future."

McCaffrey says most of the year-over-year budget increases funded increased staffing and caseload growth. He also noted the increased funding helped with rate adjustments and IT improvements for the case management system.

"DCFS is also making tremendous strides in hiring additional staff after prior administrations oversaw the hollowing out of the agency," McCaffrey stated.

The Fiscal Year 2022 budget awaits Pritzker's signature of approval.

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Mike Miletich

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