Illinois Doomsday Budget Prompts ACLU Lawsuit to Halt Illinois Child Welfare Budet Cuts

(Chicago, IL) — The looming Illinois doomsday budget cuts facing the Illinois child welfare system prompted the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois to file an emergency motion in federal court today seeking to enforce the terms of a consent decree monitored by the U.S. District Court in Chicago.

“The Governor and the legislature need to understand that this state’s budget cannot be balanced on the backs of its most vulnerable residents – children in foster care,” said Benjamin Wolf, Associate Legal Director of the ACLU of Illinois announcing the filing of the complaint.

“This state recognized when it agreed to the consent decree that the child welfare system was a disaster, and they agreed to specific steps to reform DCFS.  Now is not the time to retreat from that commitment and derail this important process.”

Judge John Grady will hear arguments in support of the ACLU of Illinois’ efforts to enforce the decree on Monday, June 29th at 5:00 p.m.

In recent days, the full impact that the 50% cut in the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services budget will have on safety and well-being of children in foster care in Illinois has become clear.

Governor Pat Quinn‘s Chief of Staff, Jerome Stermer, estimated, as an example, that the caseload of DCFS staff workers’ will more than triple, from 15 children (at present) to as many as 50 children.    Likewise, the budget cuts nearly double the DCFS investigator caseloads, from 11 active investigations to 20 active cases at any one time.

Both of these figures violate the consent decree and place children at risk since caseworkers and investigators do not have the time and attention to focus on the needs of an individual child.

Taken together, these cuts and others will put DCFS in violation of federal law and the consent decree, according to the ACLU of Illinois.

That view is shared, apparently, by the current Director of DCFS, Erwin McEwen.

In a June 5, 2009 letter describing the impact of the budget cuts, Mr. McEwen wrote the Director of the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget, Ginger Ostrow, declaring that the cuts place DCFS “in violation of the law and Consent Decrees regarding services to protected classes of Illinois citizens,” and that DCFS would “fail in its ability to reasonably insure the safety of the children and families we serve.”

The decree grew out of negotiations around a case filed originally in 1988, and now called B.H. v. McEwen.

“No one wants to return to the dark days of the 1980s and 1990s when the newspapers were filled with stories about children under the care of DCFS – and who should have been under the care of DCFS – being neglected and abused,” said Heidi Dalenberg of the Chicago office of Schiff Hardin, a cooperating counsel on the case.

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