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U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood discusses local foster care needs in Crystal Lake

Courtney Behrens and her wife have been foster parents since December, when they welcomed a child with special needs into their family.

Although Behrens fosters only one child, her family has been through at least four Illinois Department of Children and Family Services case workers in the past five months, she said. The high turnover rate is not exclusive to Behrens’ family.

At a roundtable discussion Friday in Crystal Lake, hosted by U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood, foster mom Alicia Wehby said her adopted children also have met a handful of case workers, who she said work hard but seem to rotate frequently.

“The turnover is high. The resources are low. The funding is low. They’re understaffed, overwhelmed and underpaid,” Wehby said. “They all have the best interest in mind for the kids. They work hard.”

In McHenry County, where the need for foster or respite care outnumbers available foster parents, 40% of foster children are placed in homes outside the county, said Susan McConnell, founder and executive director of the nonprofit child welfare agency Let It Be Us.

A local shortage of foster parents and limited resources for those who are present are some of the main obstacles hindering foster care in McHenry County, said parents who spoke at the roundtable discussion at McHenry County College.

Underwood hosted the discussion about foster care in response to the April 15 death of 5-year-old AJ Freund of Crystal Lake. AJ’s parents, JoAnn Cunningham and Andrew Freund, were charged with first-degree murder last month after police said they killed AJ in their home and reported him missing three days later.

In response to what Underwood called the “marquee case” highlighting child abuse, the 14th Congressional District representative has backed legislation that aims to address a rise in child maltreatment coinciding with the nationwide opioid epidemic.

“The foster care system is one where there are gaps and resource restrictions,” Underwood said.

The Stronger Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act would authorize $270 million for the expansion of prevention services to reach more than 3 million children annually, as well as an additional $270 million to support new research and help Illinois’ child protective agencies expand their services, Underwood said.

“If this is the main barrier to solving a pipeline problem, then I think this is where we should be focusing our attention,” Underwood said.

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