By Christy Gutowski
The state became Annie Audenas' substitute parent in the mid-1990s after Illinois child welfare officials said they found evidence of neglect in her family and placed the infant in protective custody.
Audenas was adopted by age 3 but the arrangement soured during her rebellious teen years and she returned to state care. She attended five high schools and became a mother, all by the age of 16.
Despite the odds, Audenas is now a 20-year-old college student working toward a degree in human resource management while raising her daughter in Naperville and holding down a part-time job. She credits Illinois' long-standing practice of supporting older foster youth for a few extra years beyond age 18 with helping her to succeed.
But, under proposed cuts to the Department of Children and Family Services, thousands of older state wards for whom Illinois failed to find permanent homes before they aged out of foster care will be forced to fend for themselves.
In what he called a "turnaround budget" to address the state's dire financial crisis, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner has proposed deep cuts to everything from social service agencies to higher education.
Rauner stressed these were "difficult but necessary choices."
It was his first budget plan since taking office after an election campaign that included a promise to "transform" the state's beleaguered child welfare agency, which has been plagued by highly publicized failures and a revolving door of leadership.
Although child advocates hoped his campaign promise meant DCFS would be spared the budget ax, Rauner proposed a spending plan for the agency that equals a 12.5-percent reduction compared with the year before. To absorb the cuts, extended foster care services for state wards after their 18th birthday would be eliminated, state officials said.
Rauner's administration argues the agency's core mission is to protect abused and neglected children. Its critical frontline includes the statewide hotline, which receives more than 230,000 annual calls. An estimated 30 percent of the calls spark child abuse and neglect investigations.
"Years of mismanaged budgets and financial recklessness forced Gov. Rauner to make some difficult decisions," Rauner spokeswoman Catherine Kelly said. "The priority of DCFS is to protect our most vulnerable children and ensure they have a safe place to live, and this budget prioritizes that."
The governor noted former state wards after 18 may seek public assistance through other agencies just like any other eligible Illinoisan in need of help.
But service providers, juvenile court officials and other advocates say the governor's plan would require statutory changes to state laws that recognize the rights of wards up to 21. And watchdog groups who monitor DCFS's foster care services under legal consent decrees vowed to go back to court if the aging out population isn't protected.
Under Rauner's plan, Illinois would lose millions in federal match dollars aimed at helping this population. And, research shows, youth who age out without a family or other safety net face significant risk of homelessness, joblessness, welfare dependency and imprisonment.
Whether society sees them as "young adults" or "older children," the estimated 2,400 wards eligible for extended foster care services next fiscal year would be cut loose under the governor's plan.
Ironically, this was one area where even DCFS's most vocal critics agree the agency was a national leader. More than three decades ago, Illinois became one of the first states in the country to extend services beyond 18.
"By definition, these kids don't have families. The state is their parent," said Gary Stangler, executive director of Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, a St. Louis foundation working in multiple states on behalf of older foster kids.
"What would we think of a parent who just kicked out their kid at 18 and said, 'Sorry, you're on our own.' This is something that most parents in this country understand is wrong."
Breaking the cycle
As a result of earlier reforms, Illinois reduced its foster rolls from more than 50,000 in 1997 to 15,000 now.
But the number of youth who at 18 age out of the system without an adoptive family or guardianship has grown across the country and in Illinois. The state historically has ranked among the worst in the nation for the length of time foster youth languish without finding a permanent family.
Too old for a child welfare system, but often unprepared to live independently, DCFS offers older foster youth who remain in the state's care extra financial help for housing, counseling, employment, education and other life-skills services. The state pays nonprofit agencies such as UCAN and Kaleidoscope, both in Chicago, to prepare the aging out population for independence.
Eligibility for extended foster care benefits ends at 21, but those state wards such as Audenas who are in college and have at least a C average get assistance until 23.
Nearly half of all states have followed Illinois' example since federal reimbursement expanded.
Rauner's proposed DCFS cuts are expected to trim $167 million next fiscal year. The agency's current budget is about $1.2 billion. Kelly said Rauner first sought input from agencies on how staff would manage with less given the state's fiscal crisis.
Researchers insist savings will be short lived. They said costs will climb due to public assistance, incarcerations and lost wages.
Mark Courtney is a professor at the University of Chicago's School of Social Services Administration and lead author of the Chapin Hall Midwest Study, which is the country's most widely cited research of youth leaving foster care.
It followed a sample of several hundred youth in Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin over five years as they aged out of foster care and found various favorable outcomes for those with continued services to 21.
"Our best estimate is that for every dollar Illinois invested on extended care, the youth and society received $2 in benefits," Courtney said. "That's just for education, and not counting reduced pregnancy, reduced crime and reduced homelessness.
"Our evidence suggests that, if it does (end services), Illinois will be going backward in a very serious way."
Tashyla Coleman, 20, plans to beat the odds.
The state ward said she wanted to remain in foster care beyond 18 to "break the cycle" of low-paying jobs, teenage pregnancy and a lack of education in her family history.
"I wanted to show my little sisters something different, something better," said Coleman, who with extended services can afford to attend Chicago State University and maintain her own one-bedroom apartment in the city.
The college sophomore dreams of being a doctor. Coleman began to cry when she described a sense of relief that came over her that first night she was placed as a teen in state care, knowing she'd get three meals a day and access to a bed rather than having to sleep on the floor as she had grown accustomed.
Coleman said she wasn't ready at 18 to be on her own and only through therapy and other services has she worked through childhood traumas and anger. A member of the state's youth advisory board, she advocates for the younger generation.
Coleman urged Rauner to find a better plan.
"I think he should think long and hard and maybe talk to some foster youth and listen to what we've been through, and have a heart. Have a heart."
Deadlines and commitments
The Tribune has long chronicled DCFS's struggles to modernize and unclog its state hotline, lower caseloads, close overdue investigations and stem the rise in child deaths due mostly to neglect.
The agency's efforts to fix its problems played out amid repeated budget cuts, contract scandals and a lack of consistent leadership.
The Tribune's most recent investigation, "Harsh Treatment," documented the widespread violence state wards face at taxpayer-funded residential treatment centers. Last month, Rauner sought out Casey Family Programs to perform a top-to-bottom audit of DCFS. The governor said the Seattle-based nonprofit will advise him on how to reform residential care, strengthen maltreatment investigations and the department's data systems.
The governor also named George Sheldon acting Illinois director after the departure of the seventh agency leader in three years. Sheldon has been credited with efforts to reform Florida's child welfare agency when he led from 2008 through 2011.
When asked about the prospect of eliminating extended foster care, Sheldon didn't show the same outrage and disbelief as other child advocates. On the job less than one month, Sheldon said he needs to examine how good of a job Illinois has done providing the programs, seeking non-taxpayer supported streams of revenue, and maximizing federal matching reimbursement.
The federal money is tied to academic, employment and other benchmarks the youths much achieve.
He agrees extended foster care is important but, if cuts are unavoidable, his priority is "more critical" services to find safe permanent outcomes for babies and youth.
"It's hard to take issue with the governor's decision on the budget when there are no good places to cut, particularly when you're dealing with the kids we serve," he said.
Rauner argued public assistance programs through other agencies are still available. But critics of the cuts said those services aren't just a monthly check and instead were developed to link youths with mentors and individualized services.
"These kids don't understand red tape," said James McIntyre, 23, of Chicago, a former state ward and foster care advocate. "They're used to having all their clothes and possessions in black trash bags because that's how the state moves foster kids when they're being bounced around from place to place to place. To balance the books and pension crisis on the backs of abused and neglected kids shows no compassion."
Sheldon cautioned it's early in budget negotiations. Advocates, and some lawmakers, pledged to fight for the rights of older foster youth.
Cook County public guardian Robert Harris said unless state law is rewritten, the decision to eliminate extended services isn't up to the governor or the legislature but it instead rests with the court. "This would be such a blow to the system," he said, "we might as well close up shop."
Audenas and Coleman both plan to graduate with bachelor's degrees in 2017. Neither is sure what she will do if her extended foster care services end before then.
When she was younger, Audenas said, she overheard someone call her a "lost cause." She is motivated, in part, to prove her doubters wrong. But, more importantly, Audenas said she wants to give her 4-year-old daughter a better life.
"Eighteen to 21 is probably the most crucial time getting ready for the rest of your life," she said. "Everyone else who has parents gets extra help, and we should be given the same opportunities to succeed. One day I'll be able to give that help back."
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