Community organizations offer solutions to rebuild Illinois’ collapsed child welfare system

Publisher: ICOY Staff

downtown Chicago

Springfield – Illinois’ largest group of child-serving community-based organizations, the Illinois Collaboration on Youth (ICOY), today outlined five critical changes it believes will help reverse the course of the state’s overwhelmed child welfare system and put it on a new path to long-term stability.   

The recommendations come a week after the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) released a report looking at the Intact Family services program — one part of the child welfare system.

“Our hearts are wrenched by the regular news of preventable child deaths and the statistics fill in the story behind these headlines. Illinois ranks worst in the nation for important measures of child safety and permanency; children and youth remain in care far longer than they should; and more than half of existing caseworker staff are leaving in various labor markets across the state. We must make changes now to reverse these trends,” said Andrea Durbin, Chief Executive Officer, Illinois Collaboration on Youth.

Community-based providers serve more than 80% of the children, youth, and families in the child welfare system. To turn this situation around, ICOY is proposing solutions that target universal issues that lead to system-wide failures. To implement these, the state will need to invest appropriate and even extraordinary resources over the next 3-5 years to right-size the system and serve children, youth, and families effectively with smaller overall system spending.

1. Rebuild Trust by Strengthening Illinois’ Public/Private Partnership

The relationship between the State of Illinois and its community-based partners that care for more than 80% of the children and youth in the state’s child welfare system has deteriorated over time. 

Solution: Create a transparent, inclusive, and mutually accountable planning process that includes real-time data sharing and targeted problem solving with the private sector about child and system needs. 

  • *Integrated care, managed care, and value-based payment models offer real promise to deliver quality care and better outcomes for our clients, but these system reforms cannot be created without having key community stakeholders involved in the planning and implementation process from start to finish. 

2. Reformulate the Rate Structure for Community-Based Organizations to Drive Outcomes

For 16 of the past 18 years – an entire childhood’s length of time – Illinois has neglected to invest in the child welfare system, putting off system improvements and innovations, and failing to keep up with the steady increases in the cost of doing this work.  

  • * In 2019, community-based organizations are projected to receive less than 10% of new funding proposed in Governor Pritzker’s introduced budget while caring for more than 80% of the children in the system. 
  • * Stagnant rates squeeze community-based organizations and divert attention to cost-containment strategies as  organizations struggle to keep up with rising costs.
  • * Community-based organizations can only provide starting salaries well below the new $15/hour minimum wage, and two to three times below the wages earned by equivalent DCFS caseworkers. 

Solution: Immediately provide $30.7 million in emergency funding in the FY2020 budget for community providers. Then institute rate methodologies for all DCFS contracts to ensure that programs have adequate resources to operate programs safely and effectively, and to deliver the kind of outcomes that children and families deserve. Update these methodologies annually to account for actual costs to deliver services. 

3. Improve Coordination of Inter-Agency Resources to Prevent Child Removal and Increase Child Reunifications and Adoptions

Supporting fragile families and protecting children from abuse and neglect is not just the responsibility of the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) and requires a multi-system community-based approach. Any state agency that serves children and families should be involved in building well-being and helping families achieve stability. 

  • * Better coordination between state departments is critical to creating a more cohesive system that coordinates services including mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment, parenting programs, child care, and early childhood education programs, and community programs that support youth and deflect them from the child welfare system. 

Solution: DCFS must partner with its community-based providers to better identify service planning gaps and develop contracts and services to meet those needs. Providers need flexible funding and contractual flexibility within the continuum of services offered at their organizations to meet children’s needs as soon as they are identified, rather than waiting for a child to “fail up” to a more expensive intensive treatment level.

4. Address the Workforce Crisis 

Both the DCFS and the community-based child welfare workforce are experiencing a turnover crisis. Caseworker turnover is approaching 50% in various labor markets across Illinois, while community-based organizations struggle to maintain a sufficient workforce of trained and experienced professionals. Research shows that for children in foster care, every worker turnover increases a child’s length of stay in the DCFS system by approximately six (6) months.

  • * Excessive turnover disrupts relationships, challenges communication, and creates opportunities for mistakes and gaps in service. 

Solution: Implement the Child Welfare Workforce Task Force that was approved by the General Assembly in 2018 but never put into action. The Task Force will bring bipartisan and expert focus to a fundamental problem at the core of child welfare practice. 

The Task Force should consider:

  • * Raising caseworker, supervisor, and therapist salaries to competitive levels
  • * Implementing better staff training, including expansion of problem-based learning through the experiential simulation labs
  • * Establishing waivers for college or graduate school loans
  • * Lowering casework to supervisor ratios
  • * Eliminating duplication and “box checking” to allow for more meaningful family engagement with people rather than paper 

5. Strengthen the Relationship Between Child Welfare and the Juvenile Court   

Juvenile courts across the state interact daily with the child welfare system, and yet no systematic effort has been made to engage and strategize with them. 

  • * Child Dependency Court stakeholders include judges and court personnel, states’ attorneys, public defenders, public guardians, guardians ad litem, court appointed special advocates (CASA), the ACLU, and community providers, as well as leadership and staff at the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.

Solution: Illinois should implement a forum for regular engagement with Child Dependency Court stakeholders for the purpose of information and data sharing, problem identification, and the development of systemic solutions. By modeling this forum after the successful Juvenile Justice Collaborative in Illinois that focuses on the juvenile delinquency process. Illinois could provide an ongoing forum for dialogue and problem solving that can be sustained beyond the tenure of one Administration.

ABOUT ICOY: Illinois Collaboration on Youth (ICOY) is Illinois’ largest provider voice for children, youth, and families in Illinois. It promotes the safety, health, and success of Illinois’ children, youth, and families by acting as a collective voice for policy and practice, and by connecting and strengthening the organizations that serve them.​ ICOY shapes practices and policies and builds the capacity of agencies so that children, youth, and families in Illinois can be safe and healthy. 

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