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YouthCare status check: State agencies, child welfare advocates share conflicting views

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – The state agencies responsible for providing healthcare to Illinois’ most vulnerable children were in the hot seat Thursday morning. They answered questions about their transition to a managed care program during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many child welfare advocates hoped state officials would delay the transition to YouthCare. Some felt the Department of Children and Family Services and the Department of Healthcare and Family Services couldn’t guarantee healthcare for every child in need.

“We consider the transition of YouthCare to be a success,” said Acting DCFS Director Marc D. Smith. “I believe this is primarily due to the planning and collaboration of DCFS, HFS, and YouthCare.”

Smith feels DCFS held true to their commitment of a new and improved system providing a higher level of care. HFS officials say 19,845 youth in care have enrolled in the new program since September 1. Meanwhile, more than 85% of the former youth in care who transitioned in February have stayed under the coverage. Smith explained foster parents previously facing obstacles in receiving care and medications find the YouthCare system valuable.

“We recognize how difficult it is to really be able to navigate the healthcare systems,” said Shawnte Alexander, Vice President of Child Welfare for YouthCare. “We want to take that role on for our families.”

Meeting the obligation

The enrollment process went much smoother than in February. However, advocates continue to get calls and letters from foster parents denied timely and critical care for their children.

“Our obligation as a state, when we remove a child from their home because they’re being abused and neglected, is to take them and put them in a place that is safe. And that is not happening here,” said Heidi Dalenberg, Institutional Reform Director for ACLU of Illinois.

Dalenberg emphasized YouthCare cannot serve children properly if doctors and specialists can’t or won’t respond to the needs of foster families.

The Capitol Bureau spoke with Cook County Public Guardian Charles Golbert about this issue before the September rollout. At that point, his office found 65-90% of the providers they called declined to see a child. While that significantly improved after the program officially started, the office still hopes for changes.

“The healthcare system that was promised to our children is not yet being provided,” said Attorney Danielle Gomez. “We have a lot more work to do to make sure that it is.”

At the same time, some foster parents find YouthCare useful.

“There’s a psychiatrist in the area that everybody loves that’s not taking patients. My coordinator was able to get [my son] an appointment in three days,” explained foster parent Jeff Corey. “And since then, he’s doing a lot better.”

Health risk screenings

Still, advocates hope everyone can come together to track the unmet needs of DCFS youth. Lawmakers also shared concerns that YouthCare is far behind on setting up health screenings for children. These screenings measure risk levels for the physical and behavioral health of each patient. YouthCare employees use the risk level to determine how frequently they come in contact with the children.

Alexander explained YouthCare has completed just over 8,300 screenings for the former youth in care since February. She noted almost 14,630 current youth in care have gone through screening since the launch in September. But, Gomez emphasized YouthCare only completed 60% of the required screenings.

“Why are we so behind,” asked Sen. Julie Morrison (D-Deerfield). “Why can’t we get this done?”

“The day that we get notified of that youth, we immediately begin outreach,” Alexander explained. “That youth gets assigned to a care coordinator on that day we get the notification. We do sometimes run into not actually being able to make contact. Our care coordinators will be calling upwards of three, four, 15 times trying to make sure that we actually connect so that we can complete that screening.”

She also noted some youth are difficult to reach due to changing of placements in the DCFS system or disconnected phone numbers. Alexander highlighted the group trains specific staff to contact those difficult to reach families.

“While I’m pleased thousands of children have received better care, more must be done to make sure every child in the DCFS system receives adequate health care regardless of ZIP code or family background,” Morrison said. “Foster families have already sacrificed so much to take care of our state’s most vulnerable children. They shouldn’t have to consider uprooting their families to find local, quality care.”

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Mike Miletich

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