I was a state agency director on three occasions back in the day, yet I don’t think I could navigate the maze of dozens of separate, and scattered, state and local social service agencies that have sprung up over the decades to address people’s problems.

It’s time for a major reset, to simplify and to provide people in distress with “coaches” who can help navigate the maze.

Cases in point: In the mid-1990s, in the wake of Newt Gingrich’s national welfare reform, I volunteered to assist a social worker friend of mine who had been assigned 13 single mothers. This baker’s dozen had to work or go to school in order to keep their welfare benefits.

But lack of jobs was far from the mothers’ sole problem. These young ladies were each walking bundles of bad decisions and liabilities/disabilities: kids born out of wedlock; school dropouts; drugs; minor rap sheets; mental distress and illness; hanging around with the wrong sorts; and more.

The young women really did want to climb out of their predicaments. Social worker Judy Leonardelli (now deceased) was a big woman, had been a bouncer at a late-night lounge in my home area early in her life. She was tough, and caring.

Judy assigned me tasks, like getting a minor infraction expunged so a young lady could get a low-paying job at a nursing home. The young women typically needed services across DCFS, mental health, child care, housing, welfare and more. I found nine state social service agencies in Peoria (where we did our thing) all scattered around the city’s metro area.

But most of these women lacked wheels.

One young woman told me she got up at 4 each morning to get youngster(s) up and going and fed something; catch various buses for them and her to school and to the community college (where Judy met the women), to work, etc. She made it home each day, by a couple/three buses, after picking up the kids, by about 7 or 8 p.m.

Judy was their coach, prod, advocate. She was good. Judy estimated that if 4 of the 13 made it to stable lives, she would consider her work successful.

Case two: A friend of mine in a small central Illinois city recently saw a woebegone, 40-ish woman looking into his store window. My friend inquired of her. He learned she was staying at the local domestic abuse shelter (a very fine operation), but her time limit there was ticking; she was freaking out.

Earlier, Kate (obviously not her real name) had escaped an abusive relationship with a drug dealer in a distant city. He was now apparently cashing her stimulus checks, so she had no money. Kate applied for jobs, but couldn’t pass the drug tests (saying she needed cannabis to calm her).

Kate has mental problems as well, typical of people in extremis, for which a doctor prescribed medications. But when she went to fill same, the pharmacy told her the doc was not in their network, so she needed a significant co-pay, which of course she didn’t have. And so it goes for people like Kate.

When I was a legislator more than half a century ago, Illinois’ huge, Dickensian mental health and “state school” warehouses were thankfully closed. (I visited them; my characterization is too kind.) There was a pledge that the foreboding institutions would be replaced with community-based services. Unfortunately, the local services never came, at least not with adequacy.

Over the decades, however, a patchwork quilt of programs, each with its own physical service location, it seems, has developed. There are dozens of them. (Don’t believe me? Google social service agencies or go to the State of Illinois website.) The intent is good; the fragmentation is not, and given bureaucratic turf defenses, it is not likely there will be much true consolidation.

There are many caring, capable staff at a panoply of agencies, all willing to do their respective pieces to help Kate. Yet none of them, like the pharmacy, deal with Kate’s whole bundle of problems. And so, she falls through the cracks.

People in real distress, with their multiple problems, each need a coach/prod/advocate like Judy Leonardelli. The coach would run interference through the maze, help knit the services together, maybe staving off homelessness, which Kate faces.

Our state legislators should stand back and re-evaluate our crazy quilt of state, local and nonprofit social service delivery systems. We can do better.

For many years, Jim Nowlan was a senior fellow and political science professor at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. He has worked for three unindicted governors and published a weekly newspaper in central Illinois.

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