The Children's Home and Aid Regional Office in Bloomington received rare good news late last year when it received a $577,000 grant from the Illinois Board of Education. The money was targeted to expand the agency's "Preschool For All" and "Prevention Initiative" programs that combined serve children from birth to age 5.
Children's Home and Aid Regional Vice President Lisa Pieper said despite the grant, the outlook for the agency because of the state budget impasse is grim. As an example, she pointed to the four staff laid off last year in the Healthy Family Illinois program that CHA has still not been able to hire back.
"Even with the stop-gap budget that was in place between from July 1 through December 31, we were not allowed to re-hire those positions, the funding was too insecure," said Pieper, who compared the granted program and Healthy Family Illinois to apples and oranges. "So a family that was eligible for one might not be eligible for the other, so we couldn't just convert those families over."
Peiper said when Governor Rauner and Democratic state legislative leaders finally agree on a budget, assuming funding gets restored to anywhere near previous levels, serious damage has been done to the states social service agencies, including CMA. She compared the situation to someone who had to take a break from reading a book.
"So you put your placeholder in the book and set it down on the coffee table, and maybe a week later you came back and pick up the book. How would you feel if someone had jerked out three chapters of that book? Now you're not going to be able to read them. The human service infrastructure in Illinois is not like a book that you can sit down, not fund, then pick it up six months later and expect to have everything just like it was," said Pieper.
Even if a program isn't closing and funding exists to pay staff, Pieper said the pool of workers is shrinking as human services agencies are losing people at what she characterized as an alarming rate.
"They're going out of state to similar positions, I've seen that happen. I've seen people who are social workers who have decided they're going to work in a completely different field. Some staff leave and go into the retail field. They have families to feed and mortgages to make too. If you didn't know day-to-day if your paycheck is going to be there, that's stressful," said Pieper.
One program Pieper was worried about losing when she talked with WGLT last year last was the Butterfly Project, which serves birth to five-year-olds who have been exposed to violence of some sort. Pieper said the program has been shut down due to being unfunded for two years in a row. She said the state spends much less down the road by serving at-risk children now. By not funding programs now, the state will need to spend money later on services such as psychiatric care, special education, foster care, and treatment for substance abuse.
Pieper says that with last years stopgap budget, signed contracts with the state were being paid in a generally timely manner up to December 31, 2016.
"But based on my experience in the past two years, I'm guessing that will change with January 2017 payments for signed contracts," said Pieper.
Editors Note: During our interview series Stretched Thin, we reported on the impact of the state budget impasse on local social service agencies That was in spring of 2016. There's still no budget. In our new series Stretched Thinner, we check back in with those social social service agencies.