Caught in the middle of the cuts

July 14, 2009

THE STATE of Illinois has no budget for social services.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and the General Assembly have been wrangling over how to balance a budget with an estimated $9 billion deficit. People with disabilities in Illinois have been caught in the middle.

The proposed budget cuts the Department of Human Services by 50 percent. Quinn vetoed this portion of the budget, leaving no budget for the department. The Department of Human Services provides services related to mental health, child care, people with disabilities, seniors, addiction problems, and housing, among other services.

Of those who rely on these services, more than 200,000 are people with developmental disabilities. Nonprofit agencies that provide serves for people with disabilities--such as therapy, respite care and employment support--are being forced to cut services or shut their doors. The full impact of the budget crisis is not yet known, as agencies are scrambling to continue services with no promise of future payments or grants from the state.

The current crisis does not even speak to the already dismal state of affairs for people with disabilities in Illinois. Today, more than 17,000 people with disabilities have unmet needs and are on a state waiting list for services--including more than 10,000 people who are in "emergency" or "critical" need of services. Some Early Intervention providers, who serve children aged zero to three, report that they have not been paid by the state since May.

According to the "2008 State of the States in Developmental Disabilities," Illinois ranks 40th in total fiscal effort among all the states. In addition, more people with developmental disabilities are institutionalized in Illinois than most other states. Institutionalization robs families of their loved ones and robs people with disabilities of their freedom and potential. It is also costly and inefficient. The study also notes that Illinois ranks dead last in the number of people living in a setting of less than seven people. This means Illinois would rather warehouse people than support them in their communities.

Prior to the current budget crisis, advocates across the state were calling on the legislature to pass a seven-year plan to improve the conditions of people with developmental disabilities with support in their communities. Now this has been put on the back burner as advocates fight just to restore the fiscal year 2009 budget.

As an occupational therapy student, I spent three months working in a community hospital inpatient psychiatric unit. Many clients are admitted for major depression, suicide attempts or ideation, and chemical or alcohol abuse issues. Person after person came in with stories of foreclosed houses, laid off spouses, job losses or mounting debt, which pushed them to depression, attempting suicide, or relapsing into drug or alcohol abuse.

The proposed budget included cuts to inpatient psychiatric care, including closing several state hospitals, at a time when people are facing immense stress. It's truly incredible that at a time when people need social services the most, they are facing less.

Activists fighting against the budget cuts need to also push for more funding from the state for needed services. Fighting to restore the fiscal year 2009 budget still leaves Illinois 40th in the country.

In a state tangled in corruption, pork projects and "pay to play" politics, we could certainly do better. We need to demand an end to playing with people with disabilities as if they are pawns in a political game.
Noreen McNulty, Chicago

To get involved fighting the budget cuts in the Chicago area, e-mail [email protected].

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