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Story Retrieval Date: 11/23/2014 11:06:17 AM CST

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Empty offices symptomatic of cuts

by Alison Flowers
Oct 08, 2008

Alison Flowers / MEDILL

"We're doing the best we can," said Cheryl Oseguera, a program director at Lutheran Social Services. State budget cuts emptied the agency's occupation therapy office of its staff.

Related Links

For updates on SB 790 and SB 1103

Fleshing out the cuts

According to Community Behavioral Healthcare Association of Illinois, here is how the budget cuts were announced throughout the summer, some through line item vetoes and reductions.

• Department of Children and Family Services lost $45 million.
-$5.4 million mental health
-$14 million child welfare agencies
-$5 million foster parents
-$21 million “other”

• Division of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse (Department of Human Services) lost $55 million.
-$43 million addiction services
-$11 million serving woman and children, youth in treatment, youth in the community court system, and people addicted to methamphetamine

• Division of Mental Health lost $35.6 million.
-$3,739,000 Children and Adolescent Programs and Children’s Mental Health Partnership
-$1 million Transitional Housing and Employment Services for Homeless Youth
-$4,684,700  MI Grant Programs and Transportation
-$3,000,000 care supporting the working poor
-$500,000 CHIPS
-$850,000 SASS Flex
-$12,050,000 care supporting the working poor

The letter ‘A’ for "Anna" is still tacked to the bulletin board that hangs over her unoccupied desk, which shares a room with two other work areas, also empty. 

“Oh, she left her letter up there,” said Cheryl Oseguera of her former colleague, an occupational therapist at Lutheran Social Services' Portage-Cragin Counseling Center, on Chicago's Northwest Side.

Anna left the agency shortly after state budget cuts rolled out over the summer. Lutheran received multiple cuts, including $125,000 from its mental health care, so the agency could not rehire for her position. 

“And the net keeps tearing,” according to Frank Anselmo, CEO of the Community Behavioral Healthcare Association of Illinois. He said in an e-mail interview that the Division of Mental Health alone lost $35.6 million in line-item vetoes and reductions, more than 10 percent of the general revenue funds that support community care.

For the moment at Lutheran, the staff is experiencing a trickle-down effect. With positions left unfilled, cases get divided among the remaining staff or referred to other agencies, leaving some clients with less care.

“We’re estimating that 50 kids, adolescents or adults will receive less services during this upcoming [fiscal] year,” said Tim Sheehan, associate executive director of mental health at Lutheran.

“People are overwhelmed,” said Oseguera, who has been with Lutheran for 29 years. She explained how the staff just doesn’t have enough time to serve clients like they once did.

The worst part of all, according to Oseguera: “The clients are starting to become more symptomatic.”

One such client is a 55-year-old woman who is living with schizophrenia and struggling with alcohol dependence. She was Anna’s client for four years and had been receiving services from Lutheran for seven. As an occupational therapist, Anna helped her clean her house, resolve conflicts with her family, and ensured that she had the right medications and was taking them on time. She even helped her sort out her finances and worked on grooming and hygiene issues so that she could socialize more and improve her functioning.

After Anna's departure, this client was referred to other agencies. She has yet to receive the same care in her home as Lutheran had given her.

“We kept her in service at the center [for group therapy], but we are just not going to be able to provide services in the home,” said Sheehan.

Relief for human services agencies is possible — including $8.5 million for mental health — but it could be a long wait. A funds sweep bill (SB 790) that passed both houses Sep.23 was signed by Gov. Blagojevich Tuesday, placing $221 million in the general revenue fund. But the governor doesn't have to give anything back to human services.

And until he takes action on the spending bill (SB 1103), nothing can be done at all, according to Tom Green, spokesman for the Illinois Department of Human Services.

Green described the cuts as indicative of the “tight budget situation for the state.”

“The governor can’t spend money that he doesn’t have,” said Mark Heyrman, clinical professor at the University of Chicago Law School and past president of the Mental Health Association of Illinois.

To protest the budget cuts, the Mental Health Summit, a committee of agencies Heyrman chairs, is planning a rally in front of the Thompson Center Oct. 15.

“Some people are getting no funding,” Heyrman said.

If funds are restored, Tim Sheehan intends to rehire for the unfilled positions at Portage-Cragin. "The end result is more clients can be seen," he said.

Meanwhile Oseguera, and those left at the counseling center, will keep carrying an extra load after losing staff members.

“The impact is now really being felt,” she said, pausing. “I think they are feeling it now.”