Caritas Fostering Loving Care for Every Child

In a rare move, a juvenile court judge in Illinois has issued multiple contempt of court orders this year against the State’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) for violating the rights of children in the welfare system. The rulings stem from DCFS allowing several children to languish without placement for months on end. “The reality is these children are stuck because there aren’t enough resources,” says Gary Huelsmann, CEO of Caritas Family Solutions, who describes kids staying in detention centers and psychiatric hospitals and sleeping on cots in agency offices. It’s why the nonprofit social services agency is intent on developing an emergency shelter to help alleviate the need.

Caritas received news last month that it had been awarded an Organization Capacity Building grant from YouthBridge, which Huelsmann says will go a long way in helping them evaluate the renovations and improvements needed to the space in Alton it has earmarked for the shelter. Caritas has had a “quasi endowment” fund with YouthBridge for a number of years, he says, and benefited from YouthBridge training in “how we manage our resources as we get bigger, protect our assets and other best practices.” One of his goals over the last 10 years has been to build a healthy reserve for both the consistent and the unforeseen challenges the agency faces, such as COVID and the current labor shortage. “YouthBridge has helped us with this goal.”

Caritas (Latin for “charity”) was founded 75 years ago this month, originally incorporated as Catholic Charities of Belleville and later Catholic Social Services. From the start, the agency has offered a broad array of direct and referral services to people with social-emotional needs and developmental disabilities across the continuum of life, operating offices, programs, and residential and group homes across Southern Illinois. Its largest area of growth, says Huelsmann, has been in child welfare.

“There are so many kids suffering with trauma today, and if we don’t address their needs now, they are headed for a lifetime of problems,” he says. Caritas has the largest adoption and foster care programs in Southern Illinois, supporting nearly 2,400 foster children and their families in 2021, and is ranked one of the highest performing foster agencies in Illinois. It also operates the St. John Bosco Children’s Center, a home for children who are too traumatized to succeed in foster care. For the future, Caritas is looking to develop a therapeutic foster home model, in which “we really wrap our foster families in training and support so that they are equipped to care for a child dealing with trauma.”

The aim always is to keep the family unit intact and return the child home, when possible, according to Huelsmann. “The State has a goal of 40% return home rate and Caritas almost always exceeds that,” he says. The agency helps families “sort it all out,” he says, developing plans with them to deal with the underlying crises making it unsafe or unhealthy for the child to be in the home, such as drug addiction, mental health issues, domestic violence and poverty.

“It’s the crux of our theory of change: helping people move from crisis to self-sufficiency,” says Huelsmann. “When they have that they are able to build healthy relationships, and people who have healthy relationships are able to create loving homes, which ultimately lead to strong communities.”

If you would like to donate or have any questions about this organization, please contact Allison McDonald.