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Briefly

Skidd and his trainer Deb, a resident of the Dwight Correctional Center
Illinois Department of Corrections

HELPING PAWS

Prison program saves dogs, trains cons and serves the disabled

  Skidd is a child of the system, bouncing from one institution to the next. But this resilient black and white dog doesn't mind a bit.

Volunteers from the Darien-based Clarence Foundation plucked him out of a shelter and put him in a prison, where inmates in a pilot program designed to teach job skills are training him. After graduation, Skidd is bound for a nursing home where he'll find work as a service dog.

A pair of measures before the Illinois House would rescue more dogs like Skidd, train more inmates and provide service dog companions free of charge to people with disabilities - all through a single program that costs taxpayers Since May, inmates in the Helping Paws Service Dog Assistance Program at the Dwight Correctional Center for women have been training dogs that might otherwise face euthanasia. The Clarence Foundation provides the dogs and the services of an expert trainer to inmates. Canine graduates of the program have been placed in nursing homes and with people who have cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis and Down's syndrome. Human graduates, after their release, may become professional dog trainers. 

Bridgette trained the Helping Paws mascot, Lucky.
Credit Illinois Department of Corrections
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Illinois Department of Corrections
Bridgette trained the Helping Paws mascot, Lucky.

  The pilot program is the result of efforts by Missy Stutler at the Illinois Department of Corrections, Clarence Foundation founders Sandra Farnik and Janet Tangorra, and Republican Rep. James Meyer of Bolingbrook.

Approximately 10 dogs or puppies at a time are given to a select group of inmates who teach the dogs skills that will be appropriate for their eventual owners. Dogs that will go to nursing homes learn basic obedience. But dogs that will be placed with individuals may require more rigorous training. Depending on the recipient's disabilities, inmates teach the dogs such skills as pulling a wheelchair, turning light switches on and off, taking cans from grocery store shelves, even picking up the receiver when the phone rings. 

Rambler II now works in a nursing home.
Credit Illinois Department of Corrections
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Illinois Department of Corrections
Rambler II now works in a nursing home.

  The idea for an inmate training program is not new. Tangorra says Washington state has had this program for a number of years. About two years ago, Farnik visited Rep. Meyer to suggest this state get involved. Meyer had seen a television program on service dogs a few days earlier and was immediately receptive to the idea. Within months, Stutler, the deputy director of female and children's services for the corrections department, had Helping Paws up and running.

Based on the program's early success, Meyer co-sponsored bills that officially designate Helping Paws as part of the correctional industries program and provide up to $1.5 million in funding.

"No taxpayer money goes into the program," stresses Stutler. Funding would come from revenue generated by other correctional industry operations, such as the manufacture and sale of clothing, bedding and furniture.

Tangorra estimates it costs $8,000 to $10,000 to train a service dog. But she and Farnik began the Clarence Foundation to give these dogs away. Stutler says the start-up costs at Dwight were about $250,000. If the measures pass, she hopes to take the program to juvenile facilities and expand it to include training for income producing services such as dog grooming and kenneling.

"This is a win-win situation for everybody," says Meyer.

Stephanie Brems at ManorCare Health Services in Hinsdale agrees. She is the social service director of the nursing and rehabilitation center that serves 180 residents and employs Helping Paws' first canine graduate, a Golden Retriever mix named Jake. It's his job to greet visitors and provide companionship to the residents. "He goes on rounds at night with the nursing staff," says Brems.

The dogs are having a positive effect on their trainers, says Stutler. "The inmates we interviewed for [the start of] this program are not the inmates we see today. They are bonding with the dogs, and re-bonding with their families."

This summer, the department expects to place the first human Helping Paws graduate in a dog training job outside the corrections system. If history holds true, she won't be seen at Dwight again. "In the other states where people have [a program like] this, they haven't had any recidivism," says Meyer.

Rodd Whelpley
 
Get your tax credits here
State officials want to get the word out about a set of new state and federal tax credits available to low-income Illinoisans. That's because lawmakers agreed to offer an earned income tax credit to the working poor for a three-year period beginning with this year's returns.

The credit, which is expected to cost the state $35 million in each of the three years, is equal to 5 percent of a similar federal tax credit. It's estimated the state's program will lower the tax burden of more than 700,000 families by about $55 in each of those years. The maximum credit per family is $194. The maximum federal earned income tax credit is $3,888 for families with at least two children. 

The state plans to mail information about the state credit to 815,000 low-income families. In addition, the state Department of Human Services will give $320,000 to the Center for Law and Human Services for a tax counseling project at 21 sites. Project volunteers perform tax preparation for families with incomes below $31,500 or individuals with incomes below $15,000. 

Illinois is one of 14 states to enact a version of the earned income tax credit. Tobacco settlement money is covering the cost of the credit in Illinois.

Maureen Foertsch McKinney


Feds probe placements of mentally ill youth

A federal report denounces Illinois and other states for caring for thousands of mentally ill young adults in geriatric nursing homes.

The report is the result of a six-month investigation by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services inspector general. Emily Melnick, the report's project leader, says the investigation was undertaken because the problem affects the cost of Medicaid. Among the recommendations: better tracking of patients and closer scrutiny of Medicaid reimbursements.

In 1998, the Chicago Tribune conducted its own investigation in Illinois and charged the state had secretly and improperly placed thousands of mentally ill patients in nursing homes in an effort to increase Medicaid funding. 

The federal report estimates that nationally there are 12,000 nursing home residents under the age of 65 with a severe mental illness, but states that investigators believe the figure is actually higher. The report criticizes states for not being able to pinpoint their populations of mentally ill young people in nursing homes.

Illinois was among the states that did not provide those specifics. Lynn Handy, deputy director of the Illinois Department of Public Aid, says that's because the inspector general's questions didn't jibe with federal requirements for tracking this population. Of the 82,000 individuals between the ages of 22 and 65 in Illinois nursing homes, she says, 9 percent have a primary diagnosis of mental illness.

The state and federal governments share the costs of caring for needy institutionalized patients, but states must bear the costs of nursing homes that have a majority of mentally ill patients. The Tribune contends that the Illinois Department of Public Aid manipulated records of thousands of mentally ill patients to make it appear they had physical impairments.

Federal rules for identifying patients as needing care primarily for mental illness or for some other reason are murky. Handy says. Consequently, the state has tried to create more objective guidelines.

Handy says she agrees with the federal report on at least one issue: The institutionalization of young people in nursing homes creates the potential for problems. "We've been spending a lot of time dealing with this very issue." As a result, the state has agreed to pay the University of Chicago Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitative Services $650,000 a year for three years to train facility staff in dealing with mental illness.

Maureen Foertsch McKinney

BRIEFLY

Legislative checklist

The spring session, which goes into high gear this month, will be the most partisan in recent memory. Political futures will be on the line as lawmakers attempt to redraw every legislative and congressional district in the state. They have other business to attend to as well. Here's what might happen between now and the end of May when the legislature is expected to adjourn.

Maps

The General Assembly will have first crack at the remap. This most partisan of all official duties begins in the next few weeks as lawmakers get a look at hard numbers from the federal Census Bureau. Expect to see plenty of competing plans in the coming months. Mapmakers will face some challenges. Among them, how to absorb the loss of one congressional seat, how to balance population shifts that will stretch or even erase some downstate legislative districts and how to calculate minority representation. If the Democrat-controlled House and the Republican-controlled Senate can't agree with each other and the Republican governor, the process could drag into fall.

Phones

Lawmakers must decide whether to rewrite or simply extend Illinois' 15-year-old telecommunication law. That law, which expires at the end of June, governs competition. The stakes are high for telecommunications companies. Illinois' local telephone market generates some $3.6 billion. The outcome of this battle also could determine whether consumers gain more choices in services and what they might have to pay for those services. Expect to see armies of big guns encamped at the Capitol and hunkered down in Springfield watering holes.

Schools

Officials also must wrestle anew with school spending. It's unlikely they can agree to overhaul the way schools are funded, a politically sensitive proposition, but they will have to determine how many state dollars to devote to elementary and secondary education. Specifically, they'll need to decide whether to extend or revise the 1997 per-pupil spending formula. This so-called foundation level grew over three years and now rests at $4,425 per student. Under the formula, poverty grants were recalculated. Expect the legislature to broaden the reach of the poverty grants and boost the guaranteed spending level. A special commission recommended an annual increase of $135.

Gov. George Ryan also wants to reorganize the State Board of Education. Expect political resistance to major changes there.

Ethics

Gov. Ryan says he'll propose legislation to prohibit all state employees from soliciting or making campaign contributions to their elected bosses. Ryan implemented a ban by executive order for everyone who works for him. The debate is likely to center on the constitutionality of such a ban.

Ryan also urged lawmakers to "be prepared, if necessary, to keep the Gift Ban Act intact. Period." That law, which prohibits most gifts to public officials from lobbyists or contractors, was ruled unconstitutional. 

Infrastructure

The state's airport capacity is an optional item of business. Nevertheless, the volume on this long-running debate is likely to go up this spring, given shifting political dynamics in Washington and growing momentum at home. This could be the year top Republican and Democratic officials come to some agreement. The potential elements are not new: more runways at O'Hare International Airport, a third Chicago-area airport in Peotone and help for downstate's struggling community airports. Expect lots of high-level, closed-door meetings in the coming weeks. 

Ryan's agenda also includes reducing congestion on the tollways in the northwestern part of the state and boosting construction programs for Illinois' community colleges.

Finances

Expect debate on the specifics of Gov. Ryan's strategy for reining in Medicaid costs. The state faces a $235 million shortfall in this year's Medicaid budget alone. Ryan implemented cutbacks worth $256 million over the next two years that include delayed payments and lower reimbursements to providers of health-related services for low-income people.

On another front, those who care for developmentally disabled Illinoisans could be in line for a raise. Efforts to get a $l-an-hour boost in the average $7.50-an-hour wage for those workers fell short in recent months. The time may be right this spring. And there may be momentum for reforms in the state's services for developmentally disabled residents. 

Peggy Boyer Long

WILDLIFE PRESERVATION

Program funds studies on bats, rattlesnakes and cavefish

A Magazine Mine bat is tagged so biologists can track her and her colony.
Credit Illinois Department of Natural Resources
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Illinois Department of Natural Resources
A Magazine Mine bat is tagged so biologists can track her and her colony.

  Location is everything when it comes to raising one's young, so several endangered or threatened species are getting a little help from the state.

The advisory committee for the Illinois Wildlife Preservation Fund, which collects money through a check-off option on state income tax returns, approved more than $107,000 for 51 wildlife protection projects.

One such project is a bat cave. The committee approved a $13,400 grant to stabilize the entrance to an abandoned mine in Alexander County that provides winter hibernation for a large colony of endangered Indiana bats. Though the Indiana bats and four other bat species, nearly 15,000 strong, appreciate the Magazine Mine's 37 degree to 43 degree temperatures, they seem unaware that their retreat has a sagging door.

Entombment would mean death for the colony. Disturbance during hibernation means starvation. So after the bats leave the cave for the summer, the state Department of Natural Resources will install specially designed steel gates and entrance supports that will allow bats to continue using the mine safely (see Illinois Issues, October 1996, page 10).

The preservation program also will help the rare eastern massasauga rattlesnake. That species, once abundant across Illinois, has been restricted to a few small areas, with the largest habitat around Carlyle Lake in Clinton County. 

The committee awarded $3,000 for radio transmitters that will be implanted in 12 to 15 massasauga rattlesnakes, enabling state biologists to track their movements for a second year. A natural resources spokesman says the agency will add that data to an environmental impact study (see Illinois Issues, October 1998, page 38, and June 1999, page 28).

Meanwhile, Southern Illinois University biologists who are studying the spring cavefish in Union County will receive nearly $4,000. Ginny Adams, a doctoral student working on the project, says this species of fish, indeed all cavefish, is extremely sensitive to changes in groundwater quality. There is almost no documented data on this fish, which grows to about 80 millimeters and lives in only 11 localities in southern Illinois. 

Beverley Scobell

 

BRIEFLY

 

New high court rules for capital casesThe Illinois Supreme Court revised its rules on capital cases in an effort to reduce chances the innocent will be executed (see Illinois Issues, February, pages 11 and 14, and May 2000, page 32). Among the changes:

- Defense attorneys and assistant prosecutors face minimum standards of training and experience.

- Judges who oversee death penalty cases will receive training.

- Prosecutors face deadlines for announcing their intentions to seek the death penalty. 

- Poor capital defendants will be represented by two certified members of a new "capital litigation trial bar."

- The Rules of Professional Conduct will specify that the duty of a public prosecutor or other government lawyer is to seek justice, not convictions. Illinois has executed 12 residents of Death Row since the state reinstituted the death penalty in 1977. The sentences of another 13 have been overturned.

UPDATES

Tuition tax credits, judicial selection, private school construction, airports, and telephones

- The 4th District Appellate Court ruled the state's tuition tax credit, a measure mostly benefiting parents who send their children to parochial schools, is legal (see Illinois Issues, June 1999, page 9).

- The Illinois Supreme Court denied a petition from the Chicago Council of Lawyers asking the court to require commissions composed of lawyers and nonlawyers to evaluate candidates for interim judicial vacancies (see Illinois Issues, February, page 14).

- Illinois Attorney General Jim Ryan advised private schools receiving Illinois First dollars that they'll have to follow state regulations when spending the money, including the requirement to pay prevailing wages to construction workers (see Illinois Issues, February, page 9).

- Illinois will get nearly $20 million from the federal government to spend on airport development throughout the state, while a number of community airports will get additional project grants (see Illinois Issues, March 2000, page 28, and September 1997, page 18). 

- In a case stemming from the 1996 federal telecommunication deregulation law, the U.S. Supreme Court will rule on a dispute over fees dominant local phone companies charge competitors to lease their lines (see Illinois Issues, May 1996, page 12).

 

BRIEFLY

Co-op phone companies offer big services

The key to getting state-of-the-art, customer-oriented telecommunication services may be to own the company. At least that's something to think about as lawmakers begin debate on the state's 15-year-old telecommunication law, due to expire in June.

In fact, Illinois' eight telephone cooperatives, which were created half a century ago to provide bare-bones telephone service to farm communities, now offer an array of services that rival, and in some cases surpass, those found in cities. The co-ops are not-for-profit companies owned by member subscribers who elect boards of directors that in turn hire managers.

For the most part, these operations are the children of the state's electric cooperatives, launched under the Rural Electrification Act of 1936 (see Illinois Issues, January 1997, page 16). That law was amended in 1949 to allow financing of telephone service to rural areas that were underserved by for-profit telephone companies. "What happened is that the electric cooperative would pull together these rural exchanges and help manage them until they could become their own entities," says John Freitag, a spokesman for the Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives.

The co-ops, exempt from rate oversight by the Illinois Commerce Commission, constitute a small segment of the telecommunication market, which is measured in access lines, the wires that bring services to customers. They serve 26,000 of the estimated 9 million access lines owned by 50 telephone companies operating in the state. By comparison, Ameritech owns 7.1 million access lines, and Verizon has more than 944,000.

In the early years, co-op services were primitive by city standards. The Rural Electrification Administration (the forerunner to the Rural Utilities Service) restricted customers to party lines. By the late 1960s, rural businesses were allowed private lines, and by the 1970s, all rural co-op customers had private lines. 

Over the past 20 years, co-ops have kept pace with their profit-driven competitors. Offering plain old telephone service, called POTS in the industry, is just not an option for these companies. "In fact, they've done things much faster than other, larger companies," says Doug Dougherty, president of the Illinois Telecommunications Association.

McDonough Telephone Cooperative, which services the rural areas of McDonough, Fulton, Warren, Henderson and Schuyler counties in the state's west central region, typifies today's phone co-op. It offers the usual custom calling options, such as three-way calling, call waiting, voice mail and caller ID. But the company, which operates 12 exchanges and more than 4,500 access lines, also has its own long distance subsidiary and provides Internet service through Western Illinois Network Services, another subsidiary owned by eight small telephone companies.

Meanwhile, Adams Telephone Co-operative, based in the west central town of Golden, also offers cable television, wireless cable and calling card services. All of Adams' 13 exchanges have digital subscriber line capability that provides faster Internet and other data services, such as video programming. McDonough's general manager, Norman Welker, says that 10 of the company's 12 exchanges have digital service and the remaining exchanges will have it soon. By contrast, Ameritech is not yet able to offer this service to all Springfield customers.

Adams' general manager, Walter Rowland, says that co-ops often move faster because they serve a manageable number of subscribers. But he also credits the member-owned co-op structure. His board of directors has pushed for expansion because it realizes "the development of infrastructure is crucial to the economic development in these [rural] areas." As for customer satisfaction, Rowland admits, "I take reports and complaints - but that is so seldom. If you don't provide good service, your members are going to visit with the board, and the board is going to visit with you." 

Rodd Whelpley

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