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Article updated: 7/29/2013 5:28 AM

Funding, 'traumatized' kids challenge child-welfare system

By Marni Pyke

Last of a two-part series

Kids in the child-welfare system are in a tough situation already, so it's doubly unfortunate some are at risk of running afoul of the law.

But the funding needed to avert that double jeopardy is in short supply for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services and the institutions it works with.

The state's financial crisis has slashed DCFS' budget and that's bad news for the effort to save troubled kids.

"Adolescents with a history of abuse and neglect are at a significantly higher risk than adolescents in the general population to enter the juvenile justice system," said Joseph Ryan, a juvenile justice and child-welfare professor formerly with the University of Illinois and now with the University of Michigan.

In the suburbs, Lutherbrook, an Addison-based residential treatment center for traumatized children ages 6 to 18, experienced more than 570 police calls in 2011 and 2012, which in some cases resulted in charges. Included in those numbers was the case of a teen chased down and beaten by four of his housemates.

The situation has been characterized as "troubling" by officials with the Cook County Public Guardian's office, which has about 20 clients at Lutherbrook.

The funding bind

With the state facing $4.5 billion in unpaid bills and a gloomy financial picture with unresolved pension obligations, social service agencies are borrowing money and cutting costs to meet obligations.

The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services has seen its budget drop by $250 million in 10 years, officials said.

The cuts have "forced the elimination of programs aimed at preventing child abuse and many of the well-being programs that provide kids with opportunities like summer camp and musical enrichment, which we as legal parents like to provide just as any parent would like to provide," spokesman Dave Clarkin said.

Residential treatment "programs have not seen their rates go up for years," noted Andrea Durbin, CEO of the Illinois Collaboration on Youth. "They keep bumping up against this cap and it makes things very difficult."

In the last 12 years, private providers such as Lutherbrook received one cost-of-living rate adjustment back in 2007 for state wards, Durbin said.

Currently, Lutherbrook's contracts with DCFS pay between $276 and $341 a day per child.

However, Lutherbrook Executive Director Brent Diers said that flat funding has not compromised "a rich program of services for kids where we have good, direct-care ratios." Children at Lutherbrook receive individual, family and group therapy, plus sports and arts programming designed to promote healing.

"Obviously, there is a struggle around resources but at the same time I wouldn't participate in the provision of services to youth that fell short of my expectations of quality standards of care for them," Diers said.

Lutherbrook cares for about 50 children, a number that has remained consistent for the past few years, said Sara LoCoco, Lutheran Child and Family Services of Illinois communications director. The center has not reduced its workforce, however Lutherbrook is depending increasingly on private funding and its reserves to cover increased costs while DCFS funding has remained flat, she noted.

A vicious cycle

Illinois has come a long way in reducing the population of children living away from their families in substitute care. From about 50,000 in the 1990s, the number is closer to 15,500 now, Durbin said.

Keeping the numbers down is the goal. The focus has been on moving kids back with their relatives or into foster homes instead of residential centers with large numbers of children.

For some kids, though, foster care is not a viable option. So of those who wind up in residential centers often arrive with emotional baggage.

"The kids who remain are the most challenging kids," Durbin explained. "They have experienced multiple traumas. Repeated trauma changes the way your brain is wired ... people who are traumatized think differently about the world."

Successful treatment requires skilled and intensive therapy, which is expensive, Durbin acknowledged. Without proper intervention, the odds can be against troubled kids so that they end up both in the child-welfare system and in trouble with the law.

And a history of abuse isn't the only thing that lands them there.

"Neglect plays a major role," explained the University of Michigan's Ryan. "People generally think about physical abuse when someone mentions foster care or the child-welfare system. But the vast majority of youth are there for reasons of neglect. And there is some evidence to suggest that neglect is a more powerful force with regards to predicting delinquency/crime."

A partial review of Addison police records indicated at least 16 instances in 2012 when Lutherbrook residents were charged with crimes ranging from misdemeanor battery to unlawful use of a weapon.

The Cook County public guardian's office confirmed some of their clients had been charged while at Lutherbrook.

"It is troubling when children who are in the system because of, at times, mental health issues -- that those very issues they are there to receive treatment for end up being the basis for a juvenile justice case," said Yvonne Zehr, chief deputy of the public guardian's juvenile division.

A small number of youth who come to Lutherbrook are already on probation, LoCoco said.

"Most behaviors we can manage with good supervision on campus without requiring police involvement. But we are required to notify the police if they violate (conditions) of probation," she explained.

"We see the kids here as traumatized kids in need of treatment and often engaged in behaviors that can engage legal authorities," Diers said. "Our goal is to work with them to provide the services they need and not to have them end up in the juvenile system."

The number of DCFS wards who also run afoul of the law is "a relatively small number but it is a growing challenge," Clarkin said.

Currently the Illinois Coalition on Youth is working with DCFS to report recommendations to Gov. Pat Quinn on reducing the number of kids that are involved in both the juvenile-justice and child-welfare system.

"The goal is to get the best possible outcomes they can get," Durbin said. "We want them to grow up to be healthy, productive and happy people."

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