Child advocacy groups see dip in funding with new state law

A major funding gap is looming for some suburban Children's Advocacy Centers in light of new legislation that readjusts court fines and fees across the state.

For more than a decade, the Child Advocacy Center of McHenry County collected $13 for every traffic, misdemeanor and felony conviction - a deal negotiated years ago among agency and county leaders, Executive Director Misty Marinier said. The funding has been crucial for the nonprofit's operations, which include conducting forensic interviews and offering free services for victims of child sexual and physical abuse, among other violent crimes, she said.

However, a recent statewide overhaul of the system set court fees collected by all CACs at $10 per offense, and funding from traffic cases has been eliminated.

The impact on the McHenry County center? A projected loss of at least $120,000 a year, or 40% of its $300,000 budget.

"Nothing short of devastating," Marinier says.

Not all CACs in Illinois are as drastically affected by the Criminal and Traffic Assessment Act, which went into effect July 1. Many, including the Lake County chapter, actually expect to see a boost in funding from court cases.

But, as in McHenry, the cash flow is expected to drop significantly for agencies in Kane and Cook counties, leaving leaders scrambling to cover the anticipated shortfall without reducing services.

"Nothing included in this (bill) turned out to be a positive for us," said Mark Parr, executive director of the Children's Advocacy Center of North and Northwest Cook County. "I think all of us are working to try and find other ways to continue to support the work that we do."

The legislation

A state law enacted in 2008 gave local county boards the authority to set court fines and fees for their CACs. In turn, some organizations were receiving up to $30 per case, while others didn't pursue that revenue option at all.

The funding inconsistencies weren't limited to CACs, said former state Rep. Steve Andersson, a Geneva Republican. The state's entire fine and fee structure was in disarray, and the Illinois Supreme Court had issued several opinions that it needed to be fixed.

A task force spent two years developing a recommendation for unifying the system, improving transparency, and streamlining the schedule and assessment of court fines and fees, Andersson said.

That process included working with all three branches of government and seeking funding estimates from the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability.

"We recognized this was a massive task," Andersson said. "We worked ... to try and figure out best-case scenarios for how to make sure we're not unintentionally giving one agency too much, or depleting (from another)."

But with no comprehensive data to work with, he said, setting the fines and fees was a bit of a guessing game.

A sunset clause was included in House Bill 4594 when it passed about a year ago, forcing lawmakers to revisit the legislation by the end of 2020. When the General Assembly reconvenes in January - six months after the law went into effect - it is expected to review the data that has been collected so far and "adjust the numbers accordingly," said Andersson, the bill's chief sponsor. "We didn't pretend like we knew everything."

The impact

The upcoming review of the law offers a glimmer of hope for some local CACs. The North and Northwest Cook County agency - one of five in the county - has been working with the statewide chapter to contact legislators and inform them of the new law's effect "on our ability to serve the kids we're trying to help," Parr said.

Court fees for each offense previously were set at $30 for the Cook County agencies, which share funding equally.

Though it's still too early to feel the impact of the new system, Parr said, he expects annual funding for his chapter to drop from $100,000 to about $30,000. That amounts to two staff positions.

"It gets down to that, potentially, if we're not able to find ways to raise the funds otherwise," he said.

The Kane County chapter also used to collect $30 per case, Executive Director Debra Bree said. Between the decline in court fee revenue and a reduction in grant money from the county's riverboat gambling proceeds, she said, "it's really starting to affect what services we're going to be able to provide."

The DuPage County agency will see a two-thirds reduction in fees, as well, though officials don't expect to feel a significant impact, said Paul Darrah, spokesman for the state's attorney's office. The fines and fees are used to defray CAC operating costs, which are primarily covered by the county, he said.

In Lake County, however, the court fees collected by the agency are expected to double, State's Attorney Michael Nerheim said. The county set the fee amount at $5 in 2011; that funding source brought in more than $42,000 last year.

The additional money is expected to support overhead costs and daily operations, which run at a deficit, he said. The center also has a "friends committee" that raises money to help offset expenses and undertake projects, such as the addition of an in-unit medical exam room.

Unifying the court fee structure levels the playing field for each chapter of the organization, Andersson said. Most CACs are different from other governmental agencies listed in the bill in that they are nonprofits or have special fundraising arms, and can share revenues between entities.

"They provide good services, no question about it, but they're a little outside the norm," he said. "I don't want the government to be in the business of supplementing what is otherwise a viable industry. If they can do it on their own, quite frankly, they should."

The shortfall

Suburban CACs are getting more referrals for victims of child sexual and physical abuse than ever before - that's not necessarily a bad thing.

The #MeToo movement and various public education campaigns have been shining a spotlight on the underreported crimes that typically occur behind the curtain, Bree said. Most suburban chapters have seen a drastic increase in the number of forensic interviews conducted each year, making the demand for their services more prevalent.

Lake County completed about 1,200 interviews last year, a 100% increase from the previous year. In Kane County, the number of new children served jumped by 37% in five years. McHenry County went from 172 interviews in 2016 to 347 last year.

That likely means more victims are coming forward, Marinier says. It also means cutting services is not an option.

The local CACs that are negatively impacted by the new law have been exploring funding options, including corporate sponsorships and grants. North and Northwest Cook County agency has been focusing on community outreach and expanding its donor base. The McHenry County group is trying to develop a funding plan.

"We're not looking for a Band-Aid. We need a future sound financial decision," Marinier said. "It's uneasy grounds, but we are going to provide the same level of service that we have been. I'm confident we'll seek the right avenues, or they'll come to us somehow, and we'll get the funding that we need to continue helping the kids."

How Children's Advocacy Centers help reduce trauma for child abuse victims

  Under a new state law that went into effect July 1, Children's Advocacy Centers in Illinois can receive $10 in circuit court fees for each misdemeanor and felony offense. The bill had unintended consequences for some agencies that previously collected a higher fee amount, including the one in McHenry County. John Starks/
  The Children's Advocacy Center in Lake County operates under the umbrella of the state's attorney's office. State's Attorney Michael Nerheim says the agency will receive more funding from a new state law aimed at unifying the court fine and fee structure. Mark Welsh/
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