Metro East programs for at-risk teens latest casuality of Illinois budget stalemate
A social service agency making cuts in the Metro East due to lack of state funding says even if Illinois legislators pass a stop-gap budget this week it won’t be enough to reverse the damage to its finances.
Children’s Home and Aid notified another nine Metro East employees last week that they were being laid off.
Their departure reduces the number of teens the agency’s programs for at-risk youth are able to serve, adding to the almost one million people the United Way estimates have lost access to social services in Illinois this year during the state budget stalemate.
“I’m not really sure what’s going to happen with these kids that normally would have been served,” said Mark Smith, the director of the agency’s Redeploy program in Madison and St. Clair Counties. “They obviously will have to go on either some kind of wait list or if the court views them as needing services and if they’re not able to get those services immediately, the only option may be prison for those kids.”
When juvenile courts in the Metro East believe children and teens need therapy, guidance or some sort of case management to stay away from crime, the judge mandates participation in Redeploy as an alternative to juvenile prison.
Smith piloted the program since it began in St. Clair County in 2005.
“Prior to Redeploy Illinois, there were some years where (St. Clair County) was committing kids to juvenile prison upwards of a hundred kids. In the past several years we’ve cut that number down to sometimes seven, sometimes eight,” said Smith, who is losing his job in late July after he guides the program through its latest round of cuts.
Smith said at a full staff of ten the Metro East Redeploy program was able to help about 120-130 youth a year. Going forward with a staff of four, he estimates their limit will be 35.
“We suspect that what will happen is that there will be a rise in juvenile crime (in Madison and St. Clair Counties). There will also be a rise in commitments to juvenile prison through the juvenile courts. That’s the last thing we want to see but really without those services in place I don’t see there being a whole lot of alternatives,” Smith said. “It’s heartbreaking. I feel powerless.”
According to Smith, research shows that once a child or teenager has been to juvenile prison they have close to a 50 percent chance of returning, and a much higher likelihood of committing future crimes. So keeping youth out of prison greatly increases their chances of moving their life in a positive direction.
Smith said even if the state restores full funding to the program in the fall that would leave several months where teens will likely be sent to juvenile prison because they can’t get therapy and support through Redeploy. And in the meantime the staff that has developed relationships with the teens will have had to move on to other jobs.
"It's heartbreaking. I feel powerless," said Metro East Redeploy director Mark Smith.
“We’ve been through a layoff before. We had one in 2009 where there was a budget interruption for five weeks to Redeploy,” Smith said. “During those five weeks they sent enough kids to juvenile prison where that cost to the taxpayers would have funded both Redeploy sites for almost two years.”
According to Children’s Home and Aid spokesman Jassen Strokosch, the agency’s latest round of cuts in the Metro East will bring its program for homeless youth down to two full-time employees and one part-time employee and limit the program’s response to crisis calls from police.
At a full staff of 18, schools in East St. Louis or Cahokia could call Children’s Home and Aid for help when a teacher suspected a child might not have a home. Strokosch said agency counselors would also follow youth for months to make sure potential conflicts with their guardians were resolved, and the possibility of abuse or neglect was removed. But he said none of the long-term case management will be possible going forward.
According to Strockosch, the state owes Children’s Home and Aid $1.8 million for services during the fiscal year that ends in June.
A United Way Survey of more than 400 Illinois social service agencies in early June found that 91 percent have had to reduce the number of people they can help this year due to the ongoing state budget stalemate.
Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter: @cmpcamille.