By Kiannah Sepeda-Miller
SPRINGFIELD — A federal court monitor is criticizing Illinois for failing to ensure that people with developmental disabilities receive adequate support within their communities for a second year in a row.
The monitor’s annual report, issued last week, says a lack of state funding to raise caregiver wages has created unprecedented shortages of workers who assist developmentally disabled residents when they move out of institutions and into apartments or group homes. The services include everything from eating and hygiene to learning life skills.
The report expanded on a similar finding last year. But the Illinois Department of Human Services said in a statement that it disagrees with the conclusion. The agency insists the state continues to meet requirements laid out in a federal decree issued in 2011 after civil rights groups sued Illinois for failing to comply with a 1999 Supreme Court ruling that unjustified institutionalization constitutes discrimination.
The decree details what Illinois must do to provide community support for the developmentally disabled.
“We remain committed to the tenets of the (decree) and look forward to suggestions from all stakeholders on ways in which we can serve individuals with developmental disabilities more effectively,” said Meredith Krantz, a spokeswoman for the department.
The issue will be discussed when plaintiffs, including the American Civil Liberties Union and Equip for Equality, meet with state officials before a Feb. 10 court date when the parties next make their case to a judge.
State funding for wage increases stalled almost a decade ago at about $9 per hour, which would place many caregivers and their families below the federal poverty level. Medicaid matches state wage rates, but states must raise wages first to secure a higher federal contribution.
“We can’t compete even with fast food restaurants or retail,” said Kim Zoeller, president of the Ray Graham Association, a DuPage County-based community service provider. “It’s truly a crisis.”
The report commends the state for reaching benchmark goals for the number of people awaiting services who’ve left institutions or family homes to live on their own or in group residences. But it found Illinois out of compliance because state government has not budgeted sufficient funds to guarantee that disabled people integrating into community life receive personalized care that addresses more than basic needs.
Court orders issued last year ensured the state continued funding service providers at 2015 levels. But federal monitor Ronnie Cohn said these funds were not enough to combat a staffing shortage.
The shortage left providers in 2016 up to 30 percent understaffed and created turnover rates as high as 70 percent which resulted in uprooted routines, overtime shifts for remaining staff and less resources devoted to activities that help disabled people engage with their community.
The report also referenced a Chicago Tribune investigation that found more than a thousand cases of abuse and neglect in state-funded group homes.
But Cohn told The Associated Press in an interview that ensuring quality care goes beyond more closely monitoring providers.
“Even the best providers with the best of intentions can’t manufacture money to keep people working,” Cohn said. “When the money stops moving, it creates problems.”
Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed legislation last fall that would have raised caregiver pay to $15 an hour, saying that a funding increase must be tied to an agreement that will end Illinois’ nearly two-year-long budget impasse. Rauner spokeswoman Catherine Kelly referred questions about the monitor’s most recent report to the Department of Human Services.
Rep. Greg Harris of Chicago, a top budget negotiator for House Democrats, said he understands the risks posed by the shortage and said lawmakers are working to correct it this session by including more human services funding in the budget.
Difficulties attracting qualified caregivers also impede providers’ abilities to open new group homes, the report concluded. That leaves many disabled Illinoisans on waitlists and in limbo, and forces some smaller group homes to merge and share staff.