Illinois Public Media News
A central Illinois judge has ruled that Catholic Charities does not have a right to state contracts for adoptions and foster care placements and Illinois officials may cut them off.
The state Department of Children and Family Services ended $30 million in contracts with Catholic Charities in July because the not-for-profit won't work with unmarried couples in placing children in adoptive and foster homes. Illinois authorities say that violates the state's civil union law.
Catholic Charities sued. But Sangamon County Circuit Judge John Schmidt ruled Thursday that the not-for-profit is not entitled to the contracts because it doesn't have to accept them.
Schmidt did not address the question of whether the charity discriminates against gays and lesbians and other people in civil unions.
State officials say unemployment in Illinois inched up to 9.5 percent in July, the third consecutive month it has increased.
The Illinois Department of Employment Security says there were 24,900 fewer jobs reported last month.
Unemployment for Illinois was 9.1 percent in June. But the rate one year ago in July was 10.1 percent.
The numbers were released Thursday and are based on data from the state agency and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The director of the employment security department is Jay Rowell. He says the July increase, which follows 15 months of declines, reflects uncertainty in consumer confidence and the volatility in the national economy.
He says long term data is a better indicator.
Indiana's decision to essentially police itself as it investigates a fatal stage collapse at the state fair is raising questions about how objective the probe will be.
Workplace safety agencies, state police and fair officials are looking into Saturday's collapse that killed five people and injured dozens more. All are under the jurisdiction of the state, which also put on the fair. The lone outside agency brought in so far is an engineering firm hired by the Indiana State Fair Commission, raising questions about its independence.
Other states in similar positions have formed special commissions with outside experts to handle investigations, including of a bonfire collapse at Texas A&M University and the Columbine High School shootings in Colorado. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels so far hasn't mentioned the idea, and instead has repeatedly referred to the wind gust that toppled the stage but spared other nearby structures as a freak occurrence that couldn't have been anticipated.
"The fair has an interest in protecting itself," attorney Jerry Miniard of Erlanger, Ky., who is representing an injured girl, said Thursday. "Why in the world would you let someone who may be responsible investigate themselves?"
Miniard said he is a friend of the father of 10-year-old Jade Walcott, whose skull was crushed by the falling stage. He questioned how thorough the probe will be given that it's nearly all being done in-house.
"The state of Indiana is basically investigating itself," he said.
Judy Nadler, a former mayor of Santa Clara, Calif., who is a senior fellow in government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, said that could be a mistake.
"There's this sort of automatic default to say, we have people here internally who can take a look at this ... but for something so closely affiliated with the state, it would be wise to call upon someone who doesn't have any even perceived conflict of interest," Nadler said. She suggested bringing in someone from outside the state, perhaps even an outside regulator.
"I think it really is such a significant event ... it requires a level of independence to fully discern the facts and to fully convey to the public that this was a fair and thorough and impartial and nonpolitical look at what happened," she said.
State fair officials did announce this week that they had hired New York engineering firm Thornton Tomasetti Inc. to review the stage's design and construction, but Miniard questioned how far-ranging that probe might be since the state will determine the scope of the investigation.
"The state of Indiana is in complete control over the investigation," Miniard said. "And the state's interests are possibly different than those people who were injured or killed."
Fair spokesman Andy Klotz said the Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration and other agencies conducting their own investigations will all report to the fair commission. "I am quite sure that everybody is going to be satisfied with the thoroughness of this investigation," he said. "And nobody wants the answers more than us."
Attention also has centered on how fair officials reacted to worsening weather conditions, telling the audience minutes before a 60 to 70 mph wind gust brought the stage down onto the crowd that the show would likely go on - without mentioning that the National Weather Service had issued a severe thunderstorm warning. But it isn't clear which, if any, agency was investigating that aspect of the crisis.
"I don't know who that falls under, but absolutely, that's going to be part of it," said Klotz.
In other states and even in Indiana, officials sometimes have avoided any appearance of conflict of interest by bringing in outside investigators. After a 1999 bonfire collapse that killed 12 people at Texas A&M University, school officials appointed a five-person commission whose members had no direct ties to the university to investigate the tragedy. The University of Notre Dame conducted its own investigation into the death of a student killed last year when the hydraulic lift he was on fell over in high winds as he filmed football practice. But it hired Peter Likins, an engineer and the former president of the University of Arizona, to provide an independent review of its investigation.
Others have gone even further. After an explosion killed 29 men last year in the Upper Big Branch mine near Montcoal, W.Va., the state's governor asked a former top federal mine regulator to investigate the accident. And Colorado's governor appointed an independent commission to investigate the 1999 Columbine High School shootings.
A spokeswoman for Daniels didn't immediately return phone calls about whether he had considered such an option.
Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, said there was ultimately no way to avoid outside investigations of an accident like the state fair stage collapse because there were bound to be lawsuits by victims and their families.
"In a sense, the lawsuit is the outside investigation," Stern said.
Miniard said he was sending a letter to Daniels asking him to issue an executive order securing the stage so that the victims can conduct their own investigations into the accident, though he said it was too early to gauge the likelihood of a lawsuit without a better understanding of what happened.
In other cases, he said, families have had to seek restraining orders to compel officials to preserve evidence. Miniard said he had called and written to state police, the state fire marshal and fair officials with his request and received no response.
(AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
A Republican congressman who sits on a caucus of Midwest high-speed rail advocates says now is not the time to find federal money for such a project.
U.S. Representative Aaron Schock of Peoria said if high-speed rail lines become a reality in Illinois, there is a place for such a line connecting Chicago with Champaign-Urbana. But Schock said the political reality is that federal funding won't be easy to get.
"We're running a $1.6 trillion deficit," he said. "We have a highway bill that's been expired for two years. We aren't building roads and bridges and infrastructure because the motor fuel tax is down. So I think we need to take care of the infrastructure, the roads, the bridges, the airports that we have now."
Schock has supported funding for infrastructure on high-speed rail in the past. But he said neither side of the aisle in Congress has funded the idea - the only money has come from President Obama's last stimulus bill.
Schock made his comments at a political fundraiser in Champaign on Wednesday, one day before Champaign County board members scheduled to vote on a statement of support for high-speed rail.
(AP Photo/Seth Perlman, File)
A first-term state representative will have to adjust his next campaign to a new district that brings him into east-central Illinois for the first time.
But Republican Adam Brown of Decatur said he is confident he can win over voters in the heavily conservative district, even with two other candidates saying they will take part in next March's primary.
Under the new map, Brown's 102nd House district now stretches east into Vermilion, Champaign and Edgar counties, far from his family's Macon County farm. But Brown said his rural connection will help him.
"I feel I can adapt to folks in a rural setting fairly well," he said. "As you mentioned, the real challenge there is getting around mile-wise. I drove the district this morning, and going from the Western portion to the eastern portion takes you about two hours by car."
Congressman Aaron Schock attended a fundraiser for Brown in Champaign on Wednesday night.
Brown is trying to line up support as he faces two township supervisors, Rob Roman of Edgar County and Matt Forcum of Shelby County, in the GOP primary. Brown narrowly defeated incumbent Bob Flider (D-Mt. Zion) last November.
A federal program that involves state and local police agencies in immigration enforcement is stirring up controversy. The program helps federal authorities see if criminal suspects have permission to be in the United States. Immigrant advocates say the program snares too many people who haven't committed crimes.
This spring, Gov. Pat Quinn made Illinois the first of three states to withdraw from the program. But now the feds are saying states have to participate, whether they want to or not. A big question is whether Quinn will mount a legal challenge. At a hearing Wednesday night in Chicago over the program, a crowd turned raucous and 10 people were arrested, according to the Chicago Police Department.
In a word, the program has meant fingerprints. State and local police forces routinely get them from suspects as part of booking. Most jurisdictions send the fingerprints to the FBI for a national criminal background check. The Secure Communities program makes it easier for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, to use the fingerprints. President Obama's administration has said the goal is to focus immigration-enforcement resources on deporting criminals like murderers, rapists and others who threaten public safety.
ICE reports that Secure Communities has helped lead to the deportation of more than 650 convicted criminal aliens in Illinois alone. But, the program has also led to hundreds of deportations of people without criminal records. Opponents of the program say it also erodes public trust in local cops, which presents another set of public-safety threats. Ill. Gov. Pat Quinn pulled the state out of the program in May. New York and Massachusetts quickly followed suit. This month, the feds told states they have no choice; that all law enforcement jurisdictions nationwide must participate by 2013.
Some attorneys at immigrant advocacy groups say they're trying working on a legal strategy for Illinois to cut ties to the program. They say they have the ear of the Quinn administration. A spokesman for Quinn says the governor's office is looking at the situation carefully but that it's too soon to discuss legal options.
At the same time, the federal Department of Homeland Security has formed a task force to help find ways to improve the Secure Communities program to keep it from damaging local law enforcement, though some immigrant advocates are calling it PR.
The task force is holding at least four hearings around the country. The third one was Wednesday night in in a downtown Chicago union hall. About 300 people packed in. The mic was open and most of the speakers said they opposed Secure Communities. Carolina is a Mexican-born mother whose kids are U.S. citizens. She asked us not to broadcast her last name because she's undocumented. So is her husband. She said Chicago police arrested him after a mixup over some broken car windows that landed him in deportation proceedings. He's got a one-way flight to Mexico out of O'Hare this morning.
"He's being deported," she said. "Do you really think that this program is working? How many more families have to suffer? Do you have children? Think of them? How would they feel if they were separated from you?"
A few minutes later most of the crowd at the hearing suddenly started yelling. It was an orchestrated protest. They stood up and followed some young undocumented activists out the door. Some of them then blocked an intersection and got arrested.
Back inside, a retired teacher said he was a brother of the victim in a hit-and-run collision that got some press coverage a couple months ago.
"I am here to report that my brother Dennis was killed by an illegal alien in the Logan Square neighborhood on June 6, 2011," said Brian McCann. "The offender hit him and then stepped on the gas, rolling over his body, and dragged him several blocks. The offender had recently completed two years' probation for another aggravated felony DUI."
McCann said he didn't know enough about the Secure Communities program to take a stand on it. But he said, at minimum, he wants immigration violators who are felons to be deported.
Activists who lost their fight to preserve Oak Forest Hospital now say they're going to focus on holding Cook County to its commitments.
A state board Tuesday approved the county's plan to close the hospital and replace it with a regional outpatient center. Patients, unions and community activists managed to stave off the closure twice before. But at Tuesday's meeting of the Illinois Health Facilities and Services Review Board, the county won the day.
Organizers say now the task is to make Cook County honor its pledge not to abandon south suburbanites.
"Let us take those concerns and be very vigilant," said William McNary of Citizen Action Illinois, calling the vote expected but disappointing. "Don't give up today. Because those health care needs are still going to continue beyond what they do here."
McNary sits on an advisory board set up by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. He vowed to make sure the outpatient center offers the best possible care and to press neighboring hospitals to follow through on their promise to absorb Oak Forest patients.
Many of the opponents sat through the four-hour meeting holding protest signs, and some even cried "genocide" as the vote was unfolding.
President Preckwinkle said she understands the anxiety, but condemns the rhetoric.
"To suggest the people on the independent governing board or the health care professionals are motivated by genocidal impulses is demeaning and extremely unfortunate," Preckwinkle said after the vote.
The county made several concessions to opponents, including agreeing to run an immediate care facility on the site around the clock. Ultimately, new appointments to a state regulatory board gave Cook County the votes it lacked in two previous efforts to pass the plan.
County officials say they plan to discontinue hospital operations by the end of August and immediately begin phasing in the clinic services.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel Wednesday announced a new foreclosure initiative that relies on community groups to identify abandoned properties.
Standing in front of a rehabbed bungalow home in the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood, Emanuel laid out details for what the city calls the Micro-Market Recovery Program.
The MacArthur Foundation will provide up to $20 million in loans with the idea of leveraging millions more from the private sector. The goal is to collect a total pool of $50 million. The city will select neighborhood groups to find foreclosed properties. Those groups will use the funds to purchase and then rehab the homes, thus making them market-ready.
"It needs a comprehensive, integrated approach rather than home by home because the system is too big and too complicated for that alone. So we are targeting our resources, both public and private and nonprofit," Emanuel said.
The mayor said the program should get about 2,000 homes back on line within three to five years.
Housing and Economic Development Commissioner Andrew Mooney said local groups can purchase the foreclosed properties by using the pooled startup money.
"The idea is straight forward. If we're really going to address the problem, we have to focus on local markets rather than one building at a time. We need to target our resources to help stabilize values, regenerate market forces and reoccupy foreclosed properties," Mooney said.
The city will start the program in nine neighborhoods: Humboldt Park, Chatham, Chicago Lawn, West Woodlawn, Auburn Gresham, West Pullman, Belmont Cragin, Englewood and Grand Boulevard.
Stan Smith, president of the nonprofit New Pisgah Community Service Organization, was on hand for Mayor Emanuel's announcement. Smith said his group hired local construction workers to rehab the bungalow that hosted the mayor, his staff and the press.
Smith said he'd like to participate in the new foreclosure program because in the past he received federal dollars to do rehab work, but that work was only piecemeal.
"We need to do a whole area, capture an area to focus in on it so you don't end up doing one house here and you have 12 more abandoned houses on the block," Smith said.
Local health care advocates hope a plan to create Illinois' largest Catholic hospital system results in greater financial assistance for the low-income.
There was little opposition in a state hearing in Urbana Wednesday, and another held the same day in Danville, over the planned merger between Provena hospitals and Chicago-based Resurrection Health Care.
Those who backed the move during Urbana's 90-minute hearing included Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance, and members of Champaign County Health Care Consumers. The group's executive director, Claudia Lennhoff, said its partnership with Provena Covenant Medical Center has helped low-income patients with medical expenses, and that a new charity care program would emerge, based on the best of both hospital systems, if the merger is approved.
But John Hilty of Urbana was concerned that a larger hospital system makes it less responsive to a community's needs.
"It seems to me that smaller organizations are easier to manage and tend to be more responsive to local communities, rather than large organizations, where the decision making is less personal and less attuned to a particular city or location," he said.
Hilty also said a larger hospital system doesn't necessarily result in less costly medical bills.
Provena Covenant Medical Center lost its property tax exemption in 2004, when the Illinois Department of Revenue ruled the hospital didn't provide enough charity care. The President and CEO of its hospitals in Urbana and Danville, Michael Brown, said Provena Covenant has proved many times since then that the hospital is a community partner. He said the level of charity care should improve with the merger. Brown said the move will produce savings from controlling purchasing prices to office functions.
"When you look at the tsunami that's in front of us as being able to take care of people with the 10,000 people a day eligible to join the Medicare ranks," he said. "There are not enough people in the following two generations to pay for that. So we have to do this a different way. And being able to merge these together and to leverage the resources gives us an opportunity to at least meet that need."
The proposed merger also got letters of endorsement from Champaign State Senator Mike Frerichs and Champaign Mayor Don Gerard.
The Illinois Health Facilities and Services Review Board will rule on the merger in October.
IBM has returned $30 million to the University of Illinois that was meant to be used for the Blue Waters supercomputer project.
The technology company announced last week that it would withdraw from the project because of apparent cost and technical concerns. The University of Illinois will give the $30 million back to the National Science Foundation, which is supporting the project. John Melchi, the senior associate director of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, said that money will continue to be used as part of the Blue Waters project.
"We believe that this machine will be one of the first of its kind, and by that I mean one of the first to provide sustained-petascale performance on a broad range of applications," Melchi said.
Melchi said NCSA is searching for a new vendor, but he wouldn't say when that search is expected to wrap up. He said the Blue Waters supercomputer should be operational by fall 2012.
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