Illinois Debt Crisis Leaves Treatment Centers Strapped, More Kids in Prison

Illinois is $6 billion in debt and the state’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) has lost $250 million of its budget over the last 10 years. The mounting debt and cutbacks have resulted in significant collateral damage for children served by DCFS providers, according to an article in Reflejos:

The cuts have “forced the elimination of programs primarily aimed at preventing child abuse and many of the well-being programs that provide kids with opportunities like summer camp and musical enrichment, which we as legal parents like to provide just [as] any parent would like to provide,” [DCFS] spokesman Dave Clarkin said.

Lutherbrook, a private residential treatment center, cares for about 50 Illinois children aged 8-18 and has received just one funding increase over the past 12 years. Officials for the institution have conceded that the situation is a “struggle.”

Unfortunately, an ongoing reduction in the number of kids in care has done little to lighten the load. While Illinois has reduced the number of children in out-of-home care from 50,000 in the 90′s to about 15,500 today, those still in institutions require intensive treatment:

“The kids who remain are the most challenging kids,” [Illinois Coalition on Youth CEO Andrea Durbin] explained. “They have experienced multiple traumas. Repeated trauma changes the way your brain is wired … people who are traumatized think differently about the world.”

With less money available to put toward helping these mentally ill children, more are bouncing between institutions and the juvenile justice system. There were at least 16 instances in 2012 alone of Lutherbrook residents being charged with crimes. Cook County Public Guardian Robert Harris has called the situation “troubling” and he’s not the only one sounding the alarm:

“Adolescents with a history of abuse and neglect are at a significantly higher risk than adolescents in the general population to enter the juvenile justice system,” said Joseph Ryan, a juvenile justice and child welfare professor formerly with the University of Illinois and now with the University of Michigan.

“It is troubling when children who are in the system because of, at times, mental health issues – that those very issue[s] they are there to receive treatment for end up being the basis for a juvenile justice case,” said Yvonne Zehr, chief deputy of the public guardian’s juvenile division.

DCFS maintains that while the number of wards who end up in the juvenile justice system is relatively low, it is of concern. The Illinois Coalition on Youth is working with DCFS to give Governor Pat Quinn recommendations on reducing the overlap of kids in both the child welfare and juvenile justice system. Durbin summed up the hoped for result:

“The goal is to get the best possible outcomes they can get. We want them to grow up to be healthy, productive and happy people.”