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County begins life
 without Family Service

Harvard resident Deb Kessel (left) talks with her mother, Sandra Luck, inside their home Friday in Harvard. Kessel, who is unemployed, cares for her ill mother and turned to Family Service for help in handling her situation. The county’s oldest and largest mental health agency is scheduled to close today. (Josh Peckler –
Harvard resident Deb Kessel (left) talks with her mother, Sandra Luck, inside their home Friday in Harvard. Kessel, who is unemployed, cares for her ill mother and turned to Family Service for help in handling her situation. The county’s oldest and largest mental health agency is scheduled to close today. (Josh Peckler –

McHENRY – Deb Kessel is an alcoholic.

The 51-year-old Harvard resident was prescribed bipolar medication but recently ran out. She’s unemployed and cares for her terminally ill mother.

Kessel in 2009 was ordered by the court to get alcohol treatment after a second drunken driving charge. She thought her drinking was under control, until she met with counselors at Family Service.

“Looking back now, I was out of control; I just didn’t realize it then,” she said. “I was in big time denial. I thought, ‘This is the way I am. I drink, but I can control myself.’ ”

Kessel is not alone. She is one of a few thousand clients now looking for alternatives in the wake of the collapse of the county’s oldest and largest mental health agency.

After today, Kessel and many others no longer will have a place to seek treatment. And like many others, a large question mark looms over Kessel’s next steps.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said.

Officials from Family Service, which closes its doors today, have said that at least 2,000 clients were seen in the past 90 days. There could be many more people who are unaware that the center is closing, and mental health advocates are anticipating an increase in crisis calls.

“I suspect that once people begin to show up and realize the building is closed, and they don’t know where to go, that’s when it will be a crisis situation for them,” McHenry County Mental Health Board Executive Director Sandy Lewis said.

Family Service’s closure came shortly after LaSalle-based North Central Behavioral Health System agreed to take over Family Service operations. North Central began operating Family Service’s McHenry location on May 1, but later that month announced that the agreement had fallen through.

State contracts worth nearly $1 million and a backlog of state Medicaid payments are blamed for leaving a large, untenable shortfall.

President Don Miskowiec said taking over Family Service would put North Central in “serious financial risk.” He was unavailable to comment for this story, and calls to Family Service were directed to North Central.

“It’s our understanding that other financial issues contributed to the closure of McHenry Family Services,” Januari Jones, a spokeswoman from the Department of Human Services, said in an email. “In addition, McHenry Family Services and North Central Behavioral Health entered into a business agreement without consent or consultation from the Department of Human Services Division (DHS) of Mental Health (DMH).”

As Family Service’s funding sources dried up, the taxpayer-funded Mental Health Board fronted the agency more than $1.4 million to cover payroll and other expenses.

Much of that money is going to be considered a loss, but just how much is yet to be seen.

“At this point in time, we’re expecting to take some loss on that,” Lewis said. “But we have not closed out the contract with Family Service. That will be coming up in future meetings.”

Mental Health Board funding made up close to 50 percent of Family Service’s budget. Annually, Family Service received $2.5 million in taxpayer funds from the Mental Health Board. Family Service received the most, followed by Pioneer Center for Human Services at $1.7 million and Centegra at $1.4 million.

The Mental Health Board will direct Family Service funds to providers who absorb clients after the agency closes today. Although the board wants to work quickly to avoid a disruption for clients, it will take its time until it knows where a majority of the clients will seek treatment.

“It’s very difficult, and we’re trying to carefully plan to do this in increments,” Lewis said.

Clients are being referred to a variety of alternative local and regional agencies. This week, the McHenry Community Health Center said it would hire Family Service psychiatrist Dr. Elizabeth
McMasters, and Rosecrance, a Rockford-based mental health and treatment facility, announced it would rent space from Family Service to offer substance abuse and mental health programs at the Veterans Parkway location.

“Are people being put in harm’s way because of a lack of access to health care? I believe they are,” Lewis said. “It may mean difficulty finding the right services, especially under one roof, because that was the beauty of Family Service.”

Pioneer Center will take on youth and traumatic brain injury services, and other providers, such as Thresholds, Families ETC, Family Alliance, Centegra and Mathers Clinic, also are willing to take on Family Service clients.

After all of the agreements with providers are finalized, there still is nearly $108,000 remaining from Family Service’s Mental Health Board funding.

Lewis warned agencies not to take on too much, too soon.

“It doesn’t help anybody if we’re seeing more organizations closing doors,” she said.

As Kessel figures her next moves and continues to care for her mother, she remembers the lessons she learned at Family Service. She hasn’t had a drink in four months.

“I’ve wanted to drink with my mom being sick,” she said. “But I keep hearing my counselor’s voice in my head all the time telling me what can I do besides drink. They’ve really helped me.”

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