Pritzker plans $147 million boost for DCFS in second-year budget

The governor plans to increase the agency’s headcount to 3,056 employees in hopes of reducing caseloads for overwhelmed investigators and adding staff at a hotline that collects tips on abuse and neglect.

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Gov. J.B. Pritzker

Gov. J.B. Pritzker is delivering his annual budget speech in Springfield on Wednesday.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Sun-Times file photo

Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s second-year budget will include a $147 million increase in funding for DCFS to boost staffing and increase support for investigations.

The Democratic governor also plans to increase the agency’s headcount to 3,056 employees, up from the 2,758 employed in 2018. That’s intended to reduce caseloads for overwhelmed investigators and to boost staffing at a hotline set up to receive calls about cases of child abuse and neglect.

Pritzker’s budget also proposes funding a third simulation lab in Illinois, to help train investigators on finding signs of abuse and neglect.

That’s among several highlights the Democratic governor released ahead of his budget speech in Springfield on Wednesday.

There were 123 deaths of children who had been in contact with the Department of Children and Family Services last year, according to an inspector general’s report released in January. Pritzker said he has personally reviewed each case with DCFS heads. He described the agency as being in a “terrible downward spiral” and blamed the budget impasse for the staffing declines and shuttered social service agencies that could have helped parents with substance abuse or mental health problems.

“When I took office, we had to reverse all those things, including bringing in new leadership and then the new leadership needs to bring in more new leadership under them,” Pritzker said. “...We needed to staff up. We needed to retrain everybody, because a lot of these people — 20 years, 10 years on the job —they never got trained or they got two weeks of training at the beginning.”

Last week the state terminated a private transportation contract after a child was “unacceptably restrained with hard ankle restraints” during a transfer to an out-of-state facility. For decades, the agency has relied on private vendors — which in many ways are hard to oversee.

Pritzker called that an “ongoing problem” — and plans to help battle retention by providing an additional $21.2 million for a cost-of-living increase in contracts. Private agency partners provide 85% of the child welfare work in Illinois and have seen only three cost-of-living bumps in 19 years, the governor’s office said.

“You’ll see in this budget that there’s a COLA [cost-of-living adjustment] increase in order to start to revitalize those outside agencies and increase retention — because the children are affected by turnover,” Pritzker said.

There’s also $500,000 more to invest in the agency’s technology; that includes its database to report cases, as well mobile technology to allow investigators to immediately upload photos they take during home visits.

Pritzker, too, said he learned last year when talking to DCFS personnel that frontline workers visiting homes with a parent with a past substance abuse problem were providing those parents with both transportation vouchers and vouchers to take a drug test. Workers would ask those parents to “get that done in the next number of days,” Pritzker said.

The governor said he asked whether the state couldn’t afford drug test kits.

“No, they just stopped doing it,” Pritzker said. “So we’re back to providing drug test kits for many of the case workers. And if you can do a drug test — and you can on the spot — and can get a reading on somebody, you can get a very good idea of whether this child needs to be removed or the parent needs more services.”

Besides the need to boost DCFS — an embattled agency whose priorities largely supersede bipartisan bickering — Republicans hope Pritzker’s address also focuses on the state’s fiscal stability.

As the governor prepares his budget, Illinois House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, said Pritzker must keep spending flat and should look at 5% or 6% in agency cuts across-the-board. He also wants to see a major effort in tackling the state’s massive pension debt.

“I would like to see a greater emphasis from the administration of how we’re going to move forward to reform our public pension systems,” Durkin. “We can’t kick this any further. The liabilities are crushing this state. We believe this next budget cycle that pensions will be the second highest budget demand that we’ll have. We’re talking over $8 billion we will have to fund in our public pension systems and our liabilities are well in excess of $200 billion. I just wish there was a sense of urgency from the Democrats to do something more.”

Last year’s budget was $40 billion. Durkin hopes it stays there.

“For a Democratic governor to say that we’re keeping spending flat, I think it would be a wonderful message to Illinois,” Durkin said.

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