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by Mason Johnson
As violence in Chicago rises, programs addressing the problems of at-risk youth suffer due to the state budget impasse. Simultaneously, sexual assault crisis centers across the state are cutting services, leaving sexual assault survivors with fewer options for counseling and legal aid.
In fact, virtually every social services organization is feeling the strain of the state's budget impasse. The damage, advocates say, may be lasting.
Comprehensive Community Based Youth Services (CCBYS) are programs meant to stabilize families across the state by focusing on the state's youth – mostly kids who've run away or been kicked out, and are possibly in danger. One popular program throughout Illinois that has been substantially hurt by the lack of budget is Teen REACH, which provides a safe environment for at-risk youth across the entire state. In May, 350 Illinois sheriffs, police chiefs and prosecutors -- with firsthand knowledge of just how important social service programs are to police work -- called for CCBYS programs like Teen REACH to have their funding restored.
That has yet to happen. Not a single CCBYS program in Illinois has been paid for the fiscal year, including the Chicago programs run by Children's Home + Aid.
"If a police officer is driving down the street and they see a 12-year-old girl sleeping on a park bench at 2 a.m. with nowhere to go, police officers don't have the resources to do something for that kid," Jassen Strokosch, Director of Communication for Children's Home + Aid, explained. "… She may be homeless, she may have been kicked out of her home, who knows. But the police aren't equipped to deal with that."
That is to say, police aren't equipped to deal with that problem in the same way as an experienced social worker, which is exactly what Children's Home + Aid would provide an officer who called their hotline. In the past, Children's Home + Aid's social worker would be tasked with figuring out why the child was on the street -- figure out if they're living in abandoned homes, if they're being sexually abused, if they're in a gang -- and would help find long-term solutions for the teen's problems.
But that's no longer a resource for police officers patrolling Englewood, which sees a disproportionate amount of Chicago's youth violence. Without funding through CCBYS, Children's Home + Aid had to cut the resources they were providing in Englewood.
A similar story plagues nearly every other facet of social services throughout the state, as senior services, drug addiction programs, early childhood education, mental-health services, after-school programs and more have all had to adjust to a loss of state money. This includes Illinois's sexual assault crisis centers, which are reducing services or outright closing throughout the state.
Rape Advocacy, Counseling and Education Services (RACES) -- a Champaign-Urbana organization that helped 37,000 people last year -- lost half their annual budget due to the state's budget impasse. Though their crisis hotline and some medical resources remain, RACES was forced to cut nearly all of their counseling, community education and legal advocacy resources.
"Our counseling, because it was unlimited, allowed us to be there with someone through their entire healing process," Amy Williams, Outreach Coordinator for RACES, told me. "... Most centers either limit the number of sessions or they charge a fee, but RACES recognized that trauma is something that takes a really long time to heal and we wanted to give our clients that opportunity."
If a sexual assault survivor is suffering from depression or having panic attacks, they can call RACES' crisis line and have someone to talk to. But that won't solve the underlying problem, which likely require the kind of long-term counseling RACES recently cut.
Even organizations able to weather the storm without cuts to their services feel the weight of the budget impasse.
According to Sharmili Majmudar, Executive Director of Rape Victim Advocates (RVA) in Chicago, demand for their services has dramatically increased since the state failed to pass a budget last summer.
"This is not how the state of Illinois should be operating. It's embarrassing," she tells me. "The people who are most vulnerable are paying the price."
Compared to some, RVA is lucky: only 20 percent of their budget comes from the state (Illinois currently owes them about $261,000). They've been able to cover the state's shortfall so far through cutting expenses, fundraisers and donations, and utilizing reserves. But extra time spent planning fundraisers and communicating with donors is time taken away from directly helping sexual assault survivors, and reserves are a finite resource.
Rehabilitation for non-violent offenders between 13 and 18 is another valuable asset being whittled away without state funds. Children's Home + Aid's Redeploy program is one example of a rehabilitation program for youths, and they've had to make profound cuts.
When a juvenile goes before a judge, the judge can choose to put the youth into the Redeploy program instead of incarcerating them. Children's Home + Aid would then work with the child, helping them graduate school or obtain work.
But Strokosch tells me that's no longer possible, not with Children's Home + Aid's cuts. This leaves judges with fewer options for nonviolent teens, often having to decide whether to send a youth to a potentially dangerous home or juvenile detention.
According to Strokosch, Children's Home + Aid's at-risk youth and Redeploy programs are relatively inexpensive compared to the likely alternatives -- the Department of Children and Family Services and incarceration -- "which cost 10 times as much to deal with."
When asked if these reductions add to Chicago's violence, Strokosch said, "There's no question..."
"When you take a 17-year-old kid and they drop out of school and they have to find a way to feed themselves, that's the perfect recipe for kids to get pulled into violent situations," Strokosch said.
Strokosch, Williams and Majmudar, in our three separate conversations, all expressed that irreversible damage has been done by the state's budget impasse. That damage would linger, even if a budget were passed tomorrow.
"It's going to take years to recover ..." Strokosch said. "Doors have closed. Employees have been let go … It's much tougher to restore those services than it is to shut them off."
Amy Williams expressed similar sentiments for RACES' sexual assault survivor counseling programs.
"This is something that, when RACES does get funding again, it's going to be a very long, painful process, rebuilding," Williams said.
Reflecting on the damage that's been done, Majmudar calls the state's inability to pass a budget "morally indefensible."
"This is not how the state of Illinois should be operating," she told me. "The people who are most vulnerable are paying the price."
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