DuPage group tackles human services reform with compassion and hard facts

In this season of election year politicking and budget-cutting, Candace King, executive director of the DuPage Federation on Human Services Reform, has a message she hopes elected officials and the general public can hear.

"Our community would be a lot better off if we invested in supports for vulnerable populations," she said. "There are hungry children, and I don't think we should have hungry children in DuPage County."

With an office just outside the crowded waiting room at the Illinois Department of Human Services office in Villa Park, King sees those hungry children and needy families on a daily basis.

But King, who has led the DuPage Federation since the state founded it in 1995, is no bleeding-heart liberal. She's a self-admitted geek, pulling out statistics showing how much more economically and ethnically diverse DuPage County is than 20 years ago and collaborating with human service providers on how to meet the needs even as government funding shrinks.

"We figure out the hard stuff, the issues that are challenging the health and human services field, and we help them find constructive answers," she said.

She worked to help start Access DuPage to provide medical care for the financially needy who lack health insurance and do not qualify for other programs. Under her leadership, the federation started the Language Access Resource Center to train translators and help agencies better serve populations that do not speak English.

With the numbers of people in need growing, the federation holds workshops to teach social service staff how to help clients apply for public benefits for which they may be eligible.

Studies posted on the federation's website examine such issues as immigrants, domestic violence and homelessness and give recommendations on how to deal with them.

"To my astonishment, other organizations seem to pick up the recommendations and go with them," she said.

Working together

With a mission to improve the lives of vulnerable people in DuPage County by helping build a more effective and efficient health and human services system, the federation has evolved over its 17 years, King said.

Originally state funded, it now earns 80 percent of its income from training and consulting fees and receives the rest from grants. Board members include representatives from governmental entities, social services organizations, the education community, churches and businesses.

"This culture of collaboration we have in DuPage County, that's what keeps me here," King said.

Richard Endress, who worked with King to start Access DuPage and now serves as president of its parent organization, DuPage Health Coalition, said King's great accomplishment has been to bring so many different entities to work together for a common purpose.

"Collaboration everybody talks about it, but it's difficult to do, particularly in social services, because many of them compete for the same funding sources," he said. "I think she's done a remarkable job in developing the federation and keeping the federation together."

Endress describes King as hardworking, tenacious and driven. She and the federation she leads think with both head and heart, he said.

Theresa Nihill, executive director of Metropolitan Family Services, serves as chairman of the federation board. Her agency has used the training and resources the federation provides, Nihill said.

"Candace backs it up with data and really strong facts," she said. "(She) is one of the most passionate people about human services and fairness and equity for all people."

Compassion needed

A native of Lincolnwood, King graduated from Lake Forest College and took her first job out of college working for a congressman. Constituents who had problems with their Social Security or other federal benefits were sent her way.

"I found it just fascinating to work those problems and figure out where in the bureaucracy I could intervene and make things better," she said.

When her boss wasn't re-elected to his congressional seat, she enrolled in graduate school at the University of Arizona, where she earned a master's degree in public administration and met her husband.

During the intervening years, she raised her family and worked with organizations that served people with developmental disabilities.

After living in Arizona and Virginia, she and her husband moved to Glen Ellyn and she became the executive director of the newly formed DuPage Federation on Human Services Reform in 1995.

In the years since, King has seen a shift in attitude toward those in need.

"We have lost our compassion for the least of our brethren," she said. "You have people who consider themselves good Christians, or whatever they happen to be, and yet they can walk past a hungry child and say, 'His parents should have thought of that before they had him.'"

King doesn't disagree that those in need should do all they can to help themselves, but sometimes it's life circumstances that have landed them in dire straits. In this tough economic climate, many of them have found the social safety net less than they imagined it to be, King said.

"It is so difficult to obtain benefits that most people who have a choice would not make that choice," she said.

Growing need

The federal poverty index used as a standard for qualifying for some aid programs is set at $23,050 for a family of four. Even 200 percent of that, or an annual income of $46,100, doesn't cut it for a family of four in DuPage County, King said.

A self-sufficiency standard that takes into account the area in which the family lives would put the needed income at nearly $75,000 in DuPage for parents with two children.

Those without adequate skills can't make that kind of money, and that's where the social safety net should fill the gaps, King said.

But in DuPage, the need is far outpacing the available help.

Between 1990 and 2010, the number of people living at 200 percent or less of the federal poverty index has grown from 69,293 to 160,575, an increase of 131.7 percent. Meanwhile, the population in DuPage has become older and increasingly diverse, with more than 10 percent of the population having limited English proficiency in 2010.

The local economy has changed from high growth to seeking to sustain jobs and prepare the workforce for the next generation of jobs.

"This is not your father's DuPage County," King said. "We are undergoing a massive demographic shift."

But because poverty in DuPage is dispersed and the county still is seen as affluent, it often does not receive its share of help, King said. Only by finding an exception to the criteria for locating a federally qualified health center in a region was King able to write an application that eventually resulted in clinics opening in Bloomingdale, West Chicago and Addison to serve those on Medicaid and the uninsured.

The multiple taxing bodies for which Illinois is notorious also make addressing human service needs more complex because no one party is responsible, she said.

The financially-strapped state government provides the bulk of health and human service funding and it is looking for ways to cut.

King said she believes the smart cuts already have been made. Other cuts, such as reducing home health care for seniors, will end in more going into nursing homes, she argues, while cutting programs like substance abuse treatment will result in more crime.

King suggests local governments may need to play a greater role in providing human services. As with education, local governments have the authority to fund human services beyond what the state provides, she said.

"I would retire happy if we had a broader understanding of the importance of human services and if we had broader support for human services to the same extent there is for education," King said.

King said through the federation, human service providers also are looking at ways to improve efficiency and collaborate with one another. Choose DuPage, a business group, is working with the federation to provide training to help nonprofits become more efficient and productive.

Challenges ahead include reducing the number of high school graduates who leave school unprepared to succeed either in college or the workforce, she said.

Tackling the tough issues requires knowing the reality that exists and broad community support to make it better, King said.

"I've always been very committed to what the data tells us," she said. "This is not the world I wish it were. It's the world that is."

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