Health advocates say Austin not getting the funding it needs

March 12, 2013
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A state official said Illinois doesn’t have enough money to fund a much-needed drop-in-center for West Side residents.

Richard Calica, director of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, told advocates and others who attended a meeting last month organized by Rep. La Shawn Ford (D-Chicago) that his agency lost $70 million of funding to community programs and another $29 million was cut from DCFS staff.

“When $70 million is taken out of community programs to help abused and neglected children, you have to prioritize,” said Calica.

Ford criticized DCFS for helping only troubled families.

“When you have an agency that’s called the Department of Children and Family Services, it speaks to the need of people, not to just if you are in trouble,” said Ford. “You might as well call it Juvenile Detention Services. DCFS doesn’t provide services for families that need help. They only provide services for people that have gotten in trouble.”

DCFS has a center in Austin that provides 24-hour crisis response and systematic support services, parent coaching and support groups, among other services. The Sankofa Safe Child Initiative, part of DCFS’s Family Advocacy Centers, operates similar to the drop-in center Ford and others want.

A state-operated center would serve as a hub for residents to address their immediate needs but could also link them to various health organizations in the community for further assistance.

“There needs to be a one-stop place, like a crisis center,” said Morris Reed, CEO of the Westside Health Authority. “The person at the crisis center will be able to either help [individuals] there on the spot or refer them to one of these different agencies that provide that direct service.”

Ford suggested that Austin becomes a model for future drop-in crisis centers throughout the city. He asked that DCFS have a presence in the clinic and in local schools, but Calica reminded him of his agency’s priorities.

“When you take $70 million and I have kids I got to feed, I have to take care of that first; it’s just reality,” said Calica.

Ford countered by saying there are buildings in Austin not being used that could be turned into a drop-in center.

“I don’t think it will cost much, and I know we have facilities in the Austin area that can house it,” said Ford. “I’ve traveled throughout the state, and I have seen them in other communities not as devastated as Austin and the West Side.”

Calica repeatedly reminded the group that even though he would like to help fund a drop-in center in Austin, it is not DCFS’s responsibility nor is it the agency’s legal mandate to do so.

“The representative would like to believe that because the words children and family are in my agency’s name, then that means anything connected with any child or family is under the purview of the Department of Children and Family Services,” said Calica. “That’s not correct.”

Marlita White, chairwoman for Chicago Safe Start, a program of the Office of Violence Prevention in the Chicago Department of Public Health, agreed a drop-in center was needed, but she said funding needs to come from elsewhere.

“I agree that we need a crisis line,” said White. “I think that it should not be DCFS. It should be another entity.”

When Calica explained why DCFS could not fund the center, members at the meeting suggested using data from universities in Chicago to link all the health facilities in Austin. Calica recommended getting private donations for the drop-in center.

Soon after explaining why DCFS could not fund the drop-in center, Calica left, prompting Rep. Ford to chase after him. When Ford returned, he said the director told him he would be happy to put a clinic in Austin.

“I don’t blame him for not being on the record because if it doesn’t come to fruition, then it’ll look like he failed,” said Ford.

In a later interview with Calica, the state official said he had “no comment” on his conversation with the Austin lawmaker outside the meeting.

Ford filed HB2879 after last month’s meeting proposing to create a violence prevention task force designed to increase awareness of resources, assist violence prevention groups, and create, develop and implement recreational, social and educational initiatives for at-risk youth, among other duties.

“We need a drop-in center in Austin,” said Ford. “Period!”

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