Changing Lives One Child at a Time
When he was elected Governor, he turned to his greatest advisor, Brenda Edgar, to lead the charge on women’s and children’s health, safety and welfare issues.
In 1991, the First Lady led the charge in adoption reform through Project HEART (Helping to Ease Adoption Red Tape). It made it easier for foster families to adopt, opened up courtrooms to clear the backlog of adoption cases and increased adoptions of special needs children. As a result, adoptions of children in the state’s foster care system increased by more than 500 percent.
In 1994, the Edgars worked diligently to prevent the tragedy of the “Baby Richard” case, which removed an innocent child from his loving adoptive parents, from happening again.
Along with adoption reform, the Edgars’ focus on child welfare yielded other measurable results. Childhood immunizations reached an all time high to 9th in the country, up from 46th when Edgar took office. The state’s infant mortality rate plummeted nearly 25 percent to an all time low. And Governor Edgar led the nation in providing health insurance to the working poor through the KidCare Children’s Health Insurance program.
of Illinois young people fully immunized by 1996
increase in in-home care for the elderly
decrease in infant mortality
Illinois’ infant mortality rate reached an all-time low in 1997, due in part to state programs encouraging regular prenatal care. Mrs Edgar watches as physicians monitor a premature infant.
Family. It is something that has sustained Jim Edgar throughout his life.
From his early years in downstate Charleston, where from age 7 he was raised by his mom after his father died tragically in a car crash, to his marriage to Brenda, to rearing two children, and finally to welcoming two grandchildren, family has been as much a part of Edgar’s life as have his three decades of government service.
Indeed, from the very beginning of his administration, Edgar sought to improve the quality of life for all Illinois families. From infancy to senior citizenship, he promoted protecting children’s health, providing quality education, keeping families together through innovative welfare reform plans, making the streets safer, and using community-based approaches for the elderly.
DCFS Director Jess Mcdonald was on the front line in reforming the state’s child welfare system. With Edgar, he worked to ensure that children’s rights counted in custody decisions.
Nowhere was the state’s challenge of protecting and preserving families more daunting than in child welfare.
The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) investigates child abuse and neglect, removes children from dangerous homes and makes the often Solomon-like decision to reunite these children with their parents or to find them other loving homes.
As guardian of its neglected children, Illinois was falling short of being a good parent when Edgar began his governorship.
In fact, three years before Edgar took office, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of abused and neglected kids, claiming that Illinois was failing its children. A federal judge concurred and placed DCFS under court supervision until it improved.
The Governor and Mrs. Edgar reached out to churches and the private sector to find adoptive parents. One ongoing initiative is “One Church, One Child.” Here, the Edgars attend a program for minority foster children in Chicago early in the Governor’s administration.
Due to bureaucratic stumbling blocks and low priorities, Illinois’ recruitment of adoptive parents for children under state care was abysmal. Edgar was adamant in his call for change.
In his first year in office, there were 708 adoptions of abused and neglected children. In 1997, adoptions grew to a record 2,229, to be topped by a record 4,293 in 1998. “This increase represents one of the great success stories of state government,” Edgar said.
The Governor accomplished the dramatic upswing by cutting the unnecessary red tape that often stymied adoptions. And Edgar fought to change a long-held court position that keeping a family together was more important than what was in the best interest of the child.
In April 1991, the Governor launched “Beautiful Babies…Right From The Start,” his first statewide program to promote parental care and to reduce infant mortality.
One constant irritant in the child welfare system has been parents who abandon their children and refuse support for their upbringing. The impact of this irresponsibility is two-fold the children suffer and the state taxpayer foots the bill.
Early in his administration, Edgar warned deadbeat parents he would be on their trail. He has been. In every year of Edgar’s two terms, the state has collected record support payments. Since 1991, $1.9 billion has been collected, more than two-thirds of all child support money brought in by the state since the program began in 1976. Illinois collected $321 million in 1998 alone.
In 1997, the National Child Support Enforcement Administration recognized the strides Illinois has made by voting it the “most improved” state at its national convention.
Edgar’s KidCare program, initiated in January 1998, provides medical coverage for more than 200,000 children whose parents cannot afford health insurance.
Edgar worked to help the estimated 300,000 Illinois children who lacked health insurance and, as a consequence, often went without routine preventive care, like immunizations, vision and hearing screenings, emergency care and prescription drugs. A hospital stay for unexpected injury or illness could drive already strapped families into financial ruin. The thousands of pregnant women without resources faced risky births and the pos-sibility of subsequent complications.
Edgar attacked the problem at several levels. He wanted greater Medicaid coverage for children of the working poor. He also sought a new health care network patterned after Medicaid and to help others pay for insurance through their employers. The goal was to enable children to grow up healthier and to have more families employed and off welfare.
When the federal Balanced Budget Act of 1997 authorized states to develop health care programs for the uninsured, Edgar moved to provide health care for children of working parents and pregnant women who could not afford insurance.
Governor Edgar in 1998 appointed a Commission on the Status of Women. Chaired by Dr. Paula Wolff (left), president of Governors States University, the commission sought ways to help women overcome obstacles in their lives and in the workplace.
More than 2,000 Illinois women die every year from breast cancer. One million suffer from a devastating disease that causes bones to become thin and brittle resulting in great pain, loss of independence and even death. Women are more likely to be diagnosed with depression and face the misunderstanding associated with this mental illness. Millions of women face these mid-life changes that carry physical and psychological impact.
The Governor cited this litany of problems affecting maturing women in his 1997 State of the State address, as he sought support for prevention and early treatment options. Mrs. Edgar’s Help Me Grow program became the model for a new women’s health initiative called Friend to Friend.
The campaign enlisted state services, public awareness, a toll-free helpline and private sector funding. Its focus was on women over 40 years old, and provided important information on heart disease, breast cancer, osteoporosis, domestic violence, mental stress and menopause. More than 30 private sector groups participated and corporate sponsors contributed $100,000. Health information went to senior centers, retiree groups and thousands of homebound senior citizens.
As Illinois’ senior citizen population grew, Edgar started programs to help the elderly remain in their homes and communities. For the 100,000 Illinoisans in nursing homes, state regulators inspected facilities to assure safe living conditions and quality care.
Helping older persons to maintain their independence and live with dignity formed the centerpiece of Edgar’s efforts for senior citizens.
The Illinois Community Care program provides in-home and adult day care for 37,000 older persons. Caseloads grew 40 percent during Edgar’s administration, and spending reached $172 million in fiscal 1999, up 86 percent from 1991.
To help older persons stay in their homes, the state offers home-delivered meals. About 43,000 elderly rely on such services, which provide 7 million meals annually. When the federally funded program fell short of growing needs, Edgar added state dollars to eliminate waiting lists.