Michelle Saddler, the new secretary of the Illinois Department of Human Services, recognizes that her agency faces big challenges in this time of economic uncertainty. Maintaining "core services" to children and families in need is a top priority, said Saddler, who took over as secretary on Oct. 13.

Michelle Saddler, the new secretary of the Illinois Department of Human Services, recognizes that her agency faces big challenges in this time of economic uncertainty.


Maintaining "core services" to children and families in need is a top priority, said Saddler, who took over as secretary on Oct. 13.


"It's not at all easy in the current budget environment," she said in an interview Thursday with GateHouse News Service. "We are in this really tight budget situation right now."


DHS runs a wide range of assistance programs, many of them targeting low-income families, people who have developmental disabilities and people with mental health or substance-abuse problems. State budget cuts have forced human service providers, which depend largely on state funding, to lay off employees and slash programs.


Gov. Pat Quinn appointed Saddler, previously his director of policy, to her new post when he chose the previous DHS secretary, Carol Adams, to become Illinois' trade representative to Africa.


"We really have to impose what we call significant efficiencies and belt-tightenings," Saddler said, adding that DHS already has begun identifying how to accomplish that.


Part of the process will involve evaluating existing DHS programs "through the lens of effectiveness," Saddler said. The idea is to ensure that the programs DHS invests in are making a difference in people's lives, she said.


For instance, she said, research has shown that good, stable child care "really improves a child's long-term success in life," reducing the chances that he or she will drop out of school or commit a crime.


Earlier this week, Saddler and Quinn announced that $74 million in one-time funding through the federal economic stimulus package would be used for child-care initiatives to help low-income parents.


The Quinn administration also wants to implement an "integrated service delivery" approach toward human services, Saddler said. That means when people seek a particular type of assistance from DHS or the Department of Public Health, for example, they also would be advised about other state aid programs for which they qualify.


"Right now, we segregate services according to which state agency provides them," Saddler said. "We want families who have multiple challenges to have no wrong door to state services, and we believe that will result in efficiencies and better service."


Saddler said her tenure as policy adviser to Quinn gave her "a fair working knowledge of DHS and certain other agencies," so she had a bit of a head start when she became DHS secretary.


Meanwhile, state government has yet to decide what to do with the former Lincoln Developmental Center property, where the Department of Human Services once operated a residential facility for people with developmental disabilities. LDC, once among the largest employers in Logan County, closed in 2002.


Four group homes, referred to as Lincoln Estates, later were built on the site at a cost of $4 million. But they've never been used.


"I know the state is looking at all kinds of alternative uses for the property," Saddler said. "We're looking at that right now."


Adriana Colindres can be reached at (217) 782-6292 or adriana.colindres@sj-r.com.