Friday, October 7, 2011

Catholic Charities of Peoria ending state foster care contracts

PJ Star:

Catholic Charities of Peoria has dropped out of its months-long legal battle with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services over foster care and civil unions.

By Jan. 31, DCFS will transfer the faith-based agency’s multi-million dollar contract and about 1,000 foster care cases, including about 300 in Peoria, to a new organization that currently has no director, no office and no state licensing for foster care.

While spokespersons for Catholic Charities and DCFS hailed Thursday’s news as a solution that puts children first and assures a smooth transition, Michael Drymiller, a board member of the new organization — The Center for Youth and Family Solutions — said, “We have a lot of work to do.”

Drymiller, a financial adviser at Northwestern Mutual in Moline, said the board of The Center for Youth and Family Solutions formed last month. He and the other four board members had not met before.

“But we knew the people at Catholic Charities, so we were all motivated to try to keep the contracts intact,” he said. “We all knew the leadership at Catholic Charities, and we were all motivated to find a solution.”

The two board members with Peoria connections are Julie Hohulin and Jeff Myers. A Jeff Myers was the chief financial officer at Catholic Charities at one time, though his employment status could not be verified Thursday.

All parties say the new agency is not connected to Catholic Charities.

The Catholic Diocese of Peoria announced in a news release Thursday that it was withdrawing from all state-funded social services. Along with an approximately $15 million foster care contract, the plan is to transfer more than 200 Catholic Charities employees to the new agency.

“To my immediate knowledge, this is a first-of-its-kind solution,” said DCFS spokesman Kendall Marlowe. Though Marlowe previously mentioned the possibility of transferring foster care cases to agencies in the 26-county area of the Peoria diocese, he praised the new plan as “a cleaner, stronger solution that allows the team of professionals working at Catholic Charities to largely stay intact.”

The Peoria-based Catholic Charities is the largest of four Catholic Charities agencies that sued the state after civil unions were legalized in June. Catholic Charities in Springfield, Belleville and Joliet are appealing the latest judicial decision regarding state contracts.

DCFS did not renew their contracts after the agencies, based on religious convictions, refused to recognize the new civil unions law. The state said their refusal discriminated against same-sex couples.

Catholic Charities in Peoria, Springfield, Belleville and Joliet filed suit, maintaining they had property rights and a religious exemption. They argued they should have the contracts and be allowed to continue their long-standing practice of referring unmarried couples, including same-sex couples, to other agencies.

Catholic Charities of Peoria first signaled the possibility of withdrawing from the lawsuit last week after a Sangamon County Circuit judge ruled, for a second time, that the faith-based agencies do not have an automatic legal right to a state contract.

Attorneys for the Thomas More Society, a Catholic legal adovacy group that is arguing the cases pro bono, vowed an appeal on behalf of the four agencies.  But Patricia Gibson, chancellor and general counsel for the Catholic Diocese of Peoria hesitated to say flat out that the Peoria diocese would appeal.

The reason behind her hesitation became clear in Thursday’s news release.

In the release, Bishop Daniel Jenky said he did not make the decision lightly. “Public policy and state laws, however, have increasingly clashed with church teachings in such a way that we no longer can maintain this partnership as a viable option.”

Almost $20 million of Catholic Charities’ $24 million budget is from state contracts. The diocese supplies about $220,000 to the budget.  

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