(MCT) — Nearly 300 workers slated to be laid off from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services won a reprieve Thursday amid high hopes that the struggling agency can recoup funding from the state Legislature.
A nearly $90 million cut in the agency's $1.2 billion budget had earlier prompted administrators to announce the elimination of staff caseworkers from an intervention program that attempts to keep troubled families together.
In separate messages to DCFS staff Thursday, agency director Richard Calica and union leaders confirmed that half of the budget cuts are expected to be reversed when the Legislature returns Nov. 27 for its fall veto session.
There still is no guarantee of that, and the revenue source is uncertain, but Calica said he hopes no employees will be laid off and his plan to reorganize the agency to better protect at-risk children will proceed. Some 100 unfilled positions, equaling a 6 percent reduction, still will be eliminated.
"Members of the General Assembly from both chambers and both parties have expressed support for this approach," Calica wrote to staff. "The past few months have been trying for all of us, and I appreciate the professionalism you've shown in the face of such uncertainty. With the support of the General Assembly, a solution is now in sight."
Last year, 14,000 children remained in their homes after their parents received help through the intact family services program, according to DCFS data. DCFS workers handled 80 percent of the cases, while the remaining 20 percent were referred to contractual private agencies.
The Tribune has reported that the DCFS cuts would have meant at least 1,500 fewer families would be eligible for the program, a 33 percent reduction that critics argued would result in higher foster care rolls.
In recent months, the newspaper also has documented the agency's clogged hotline and staggering investigative caseloads that have led to overdue and sloppy child-protection investigations. Questions have been raised about whether some recent child-abuse deaths could have been avoided.
The seniority-based layoffs were expected to begin this month. DCFS officials said that if the money is restored, the agency through a reorganization plan could beef up its child-protection investigative unit by 138 workers and reduce caseloads to below the mandated ratio of about 12 cases to 1 worker.
In June, Gov. Pat Quinn pushed to stave off the layoffs by diverting some savings from his plan to close some state prison facilities. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union, which represents DCFS and prison employees, argues that the prison closings are unsafe and suggests looking elsewhere for the money.
Though state revenues have increased beyond projections, lawmakers such as Rep. Sara Feigenholtz said so have Illinois' bills. The North Side Democrat said that while lawmakers still have many questions for Calica to ensure the money isn't wasted, their ongoing discussions are encouraging.
"I think it's still 'wait and see,'" said Feigenholtz, chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee for Human Services. "We never like to lay anyone off, but we need to ensure the department does due diligence with the taxpayers' dollars and makes good service decisions on behalf of children."