Learning About a Social Service Agency from the Inside

Julia Henly uses fellowship to study child care policies and advocacy at Illinois Action for Children

By William Harms

News Type
SSA Magazine (Archive)


As they participate in the many joys of raising children, low-income working parents also confront tremendous challenges. One of the most strenuous is navigating a complicated child care market and successfully securing affordable child care that meets their needs and the needs of their children.

A man and a woman reading something on a table


The view from within a social service agency is frequently revealing, but it is a perspective researchers often do not have. Associate Professor Julia Henly has received that opportunity, thanks to a William T. Grant Foundation Distinguished Fellows Award. She has spent the year at the Illinois Action for Children, learning more about how the organization administers child care support to low-income working families and how the organization advocates for the needs of children. Henly's research focuses on child care and the special needs of workers with non-traditional work schedules. She also has helped the agency with its research work and gained perspectives on how her own scholarship agenda can be better informed as a result of seeing a social service agency at work.

The view from within a social service agency is frequently revealing, but it is a perspective researchers often do not have. Associate Professor Julia Henly has received that opportunity, thanks to a William T. Grant Foundation Distinguished Fellows Award. She has spent the year at the Illinois Action for Children, learning more about how the organization administers child care support to low-income working families and how the organization advocates for the needs of children. Henly's research focuses on child care and the special needs of workers with non-traditional work schedules. She also has helped the agency with its research work and gained perspectives on how her own scholarship agenda can be better informed as a result of seeing a social service agency at work. 



Addressing the child care challenges of low-income families is the everyday work of a cadre of professionals who deliver direct services, administer government child care benefits, provide trainings and supports to the child care and early education workforce, and advocate on behalf of parents and providers for better public policies and programs. Like parents, these professionals also face enormous challenges as they conduct their work in a complex, uncertain, and resource-scarce environment.

Child care is the focus of much academic research, but sometimes scholars can gain new information by looking from the inside out—that is, by immersing themselves inside an organization that is on the front lines of addressing a vexing social issue like child care.

Julia Henly, Associate Professor at SSA, is receiving that insider’s perspective this year as part of a fellowship in which she is immersed in the daily operations of Illinois Action for Children (IAFC). IAFC is a large, multi-faceted nonprofit organization that serves as the resource and referral agency for Cook County parents in need of child care services. It also takes on many other tasks as it administers the Child Care Assistance Program, provides support and technical assistance to child care and early education professionals, conducts research on early care and education, and advocates on behalf of low-income families and their child care needs through its public policy and advocacy work.

As a recipient of a William T. Grant Foundation Distinguished Fellows Award, Henly has joined IAFC staff members as they pursue their policy agenda, plan advocacy initiatives, and meet with clients seeking subsidies. She has also helped the organization evaluate its own programs and engage in the planning of future organizational efforts. She is in regular attendance at senior management staff meetings and the meetings of the public policy and advocacy team.

“Julie has been a long-time partner with Illinois Action for Children. She has been an intellectual validator of the approach we take in our work with children, families and communities,” says Maria Whelan, AM ’73 (Social Sciences), President and CEO of IAFC.

“We appreciate, in particular, her willingness to think about the impact of child care and employment practices such as job schedules on fragile families,” she adds.

Henly’s fellowship is part of a program intended to facilitate exchange between academics, policymakers, and practitioners. It aims to deepen the perspective of scholars who research social services and public policies and also provide a scholar’s perspective to those who create policy and deliver social services.

Among other things, the fellowship is helping Henly develop a research agenda that invokes an organizational and political lens through which she can better understand the complexities and constraints of delivering public programs effectively and efficiently. She plans to come away from the fellowship year with a clear set of research questions that are informed by her on-the-ground experiences and useful to both scholarly and practice audiences.

“Part of what I want to do is to understand from the front line of practice how the administration of programs work, and to see how the organization balances its role as advocate with its job of administering public programs, especially the child care subsidy program,” says Henly. “This opportunity is also helping me gain knowledge about how to effectively translate research to practice that would impact the relevance and value of my research and influence my development as a scholar, mentor, and leader in the social welfare field.”

Being part of discussions about quality child care is one of many ways in which Henly’s knowledge about state child care policy has been increased.

Illinois has received a federal Race to the Top grant that provided funding for Illinois to create a unified framework for its early learning programs with a goal of increasing overall program quality. “The intent is to improve the early care and education infrastructure in Illinois and help parents make choices about which child care programs best meet their needs,” says Henly. As the Child Care Resource and Referral agency for Cook County, IAFC is contracted to provide coaching and technical assistance to licensed child care centers and family child care homes in support of the state’s
quality goals.

Henly worked with Valerie Taing, AM ’13, on a review of IAFC’s work with the ExeleRate, Illinois’ quality rating system. “Julie was extremely helpful in designing the assessment and developing the analysis,” said Taing, a quality improvement analyst for IAFC.

The two found that work with quality specialists increased the likelihood that a program would be awarded a circle of quality designation in the ExceleRate system. They also found that the process for attaining such a designation is lengthy and there are several challenges to participation in the system.

Conversations with quality specialists provided Henly with a more complete picture of the problems on the ground for professionals working to improve quality in early childhood care and education.

Although the ExceleRate system and the Child Care Assistance Program are separate programs, the fellowship has taught Henly how much the two systems depend on one another to work effectively. Recent changes to child care subsidy policy have reduced subsidy caseloads and created challenging economic circumstances for providers. These conditions make it difficult for providers to invest in program improvements and staff training so that they can fully participate in the state’s quality improvement efforts. “I believe more now than ever that what we need is a better funded system of subsidized child care and early education,” she says.

Two  women- the one in left in black clothes with a colorful scarf the one in right has a purple sweater with a colorful shawl both smile


Julie Henly works on IAFC projects with Maria Whelan, President and CEO of the agency.

In Illinois, child care subsidies for low-income families come from the Illinois Child Care Assistance Program, which is funded through the state and federal governments. More than 160,000 children in Illinois receive child care subsidies. These children receive care in licensed centers and family child care homes, as well as by license-exempt providers such as friends, relatives, and neighbors. This diversity in care type is a hallmark of the program that recognizes the complexity of parental work schedules and children’s developmental needs. Child care providers are paid directly through the program and parents also provide supplemental payments to providers. Nationally, program funding does not meet demand, and in Illinois in particular, there have been recent changes to the eligibility rules for child care assistance that have reduced the size of the program.

Henly has studied the Child Care Assistance Program in Cook County and Southwestern Illinois through her research as principal investigator of “The Illinois/New York Child Care Research Partnership Study,” a multi-year mixed-method project that examines employment- and program-related factors that influence families’ experiences while using Child Care Assistance Program in four distinct regions of New York and Illinois. The project issued its final report in August, 2015: “Determinants of Subsidy Stability and Child Care Continuity.”

That study found that two-thirds of families studied in New York and three quarters of families studied in Illinois left the child care subsidy program within the 18 month project period. About one-third of families who exit within 12 months return within three months and about 40 percent return within six months. The study reported that job loss and irregular or reduced work hours both contributed to a child leaving the subsidy program, as did problems originating with eligibility rules, processing delays, and payment problems.

As part of her research, Henly has talked with numerous parents about their experiences with child care assistance. The William T. Grant Fellowship gives her an opportunity to see how the program works from the perspective of the staff who administer it.

“Parents see the subsidy program as a critical work and family support. They are grateful that child care assistance from the state exists, but they have frustrations as well, and I found that many program staff share those frustrations,” Henly says. In order to qualify for the subsidy, for instance, the parents must first have a job lined up and a provider as well.

“In Illinois, parents must renew their eligibility every six months. This has resulted in a great deal of program turnover, even when parents remain technically eligible,” Henly says. “And when they lose their subsidy, we find they often have to take their children out of care, which is not a good situation for working parents or their children.”

The Child Care Assistance Program is set to change as a result of a federal reauthorization of the Child Care and Development Fund, the law that governs and funds child care assistance. The new law replaces an earlier version that was part of welfare reform in 1996. One purpose of the new federal law remains the same—to make it easier for parents to work by providing support for child care—but the reauthorized law puts more emphasis on using child care assistance to promote quality and stable child care for low-income families.

In order to promote increased continuity of benefits, the new law requires states to extend program eligibility to twelve months. It also requires that child care programs meet new health, safety, and quality standards.

Illinois Action for Children was founded in 1969 in response to a growing need for child care brought on by an increase in the number of women entering the workforce. The problem of unavailability and unaffordability of child care was particularly acute among women from low-income families.

Part of what Henly is learning is how the organization advocates for the needs of families and children at the city, state, and federal levels. In addition
to speaking up for children and families at times of budget crises, the agency helps organize rallies, as appropriate, to raise awareness and press for change.

At a state level, the policy team works closely with legislative staff to help write bills and garner legislative support.

The advocacy challenges are particularly daunting in Illinois this year. The state is faced with a budget crisis and sharp divisions between a Republican governor and a legislature controlled by Democrats. Illinois has been operating without a state budget since the summer of 2015 due to the deadlock among the state leadership.

As a result, social service funding has been compromised. “Last summer, Governor Bruce Rauner announced changes to child care subsidy eligibility through emergency rule. Instead of providing subsidies to families whose income was 185 percent of the poverty level or below, the governor reduced the income limit to 50 percent of poverty, although he did allow children currently enrolled in the program to continue their eligibility. He also denied eligibility to parents enrolled in higher education,” Henly says.

The announcement brought an immediate response from IAFC and other child advocacy groups, who she says responded as “a well-oiled machine.”

The groups pointed out that the governor’s changes meant that about 90 percent of new families who applied for assistance would be denied. They also encouraged interested people to email and call legislators.

Henly testified as a researcher at an October hearing on Rauner’s emergency rules held by the Illinois Department of Human Services. She pointed out the deep research base supporting the program and its strong track record for helping low-income parents afford child care so that they could work. Henly felt that restricting program access to the Child Care Assistance Program to people who earned 50 percent of the poverty level would be devastating.

“Child care is expensive. Enrollment of two children in center-based care is more than $18,000 a year in Illinois. By way of reference, a parent with two children earning $11,000 a year is not even eligible for assistance under the new CCAP rules,” she pointed out.

In November, Governor Rauner agreed to change the emergency rules he announced in July. The eligibility threshold was increased to 162 percent of the federal poverty level from 50 percent. Families already in the program at the 185 percent level as well as some others, including those who receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families were allowed to stay at the 185 percent level.

The Child Care Assistance Program is particularly important in Cook County, where 25 percent of the 880,000 children in the county live in poverty, and 46 percent are from families earning less than 185 percent of the poverty level, an IAFC report points out.

In February, Henly had an opportunity to speak again at an Illinois Department of Human Services hearing, this time to talk about proposals for state implementation of the new federal Child Care Development Fund.

She applauded the state’s extension of the CCAP eligibility to 12 months as it would improve continuity of care, but questioned the need to have families check in at nine months.

She also encouraged the state to raise the income eligibility threshold, to a minimum of the former 185 percent of poverty level. Even at 185 percent of poverty level. Even at 185 percent of poverty, the cost of unsubsidized center-based child care is unaffordable for families—about half of their income, she said.

At IAFC, Julia Henly has worked with Valerie Taing, AM, ’13, and Sean Hudson, AM, ’14


At IAFC, Julia Henly has worked with Valerie Taing, AM, ’13, and Sean Hudson, AM, ’14 

The proposed state rules drafted in response to the new federal law preserve parental choice in child care providers, something Henly feels is important, especially for families with nonstandard work schedules.

According to IAFC’s 2015 Report on Child Care in Cook County, “Most child care programs are available only during the daytime on weekdays, but half of part-time employees and one-third of full-time employees work non-traditional schedules that include at least some evening, night, or weekend hours.”

Henly’s studies, many conducted in collaboration with SSA Associate Professor Susan Lambert, confirm the overall prevalence of jobs requiring work during nonstandard hours and also indicate that unpredictable schedules and fluctuating hours are also common, and also create challenges for parents in need of child care.

“More than half of parents surveyed as part of our study of Illinois CCAP families report working evenings and weekends, and more than one-third receive their work schedules with less than one week notice and report frequently being called into work unexpectedly or staying later than their scheduled shift,” she said her in February testimony.

Henly notes that parents with precarious job schedules such as these have an especially difficult time finding center based child care to accommodate their work, which is why maintaining licensed family child care providers and license exempt providers in the system, without overly onerous inspection, monitoring, and training requirements, is so important.

Increased regulation could discourage family and friends who provide child care and receive the subsidies from being part of the system.

To better understand the needs of the families impacted by uncertain work schedules, she is part of a research project being led by the research director at Illinois Action for Children, David Alexander, and Sean Hudson, AM ’14, a data and research associate at IAFC.

A team is preparing a research brief, a report that analyzes the issue, and then a policy brief that Henly will write together with Alexander.

“Julie has provided tremendous expertise around interpreting the results and also understands the needs of the families and their children. What I really enjoy about her is her passion. It comes out in our meetings that she really cares about these issues. She’s inspired me to want to continue my own education and pursue a PhD,” says Hudson.

The work that Henly is doing at IAFC strengthens her work as a scholar in many ways and supports her contributions to organizations interested in the needs of low income families. She is active on the local, state, and national levels in advisory roles that support evidence-based policy and practice efforts.

She is a member of the Steering Committee of the Child Care Policy Research Consortium for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families, for example. With David Alexander at IAFC, and colleagues in the Governor’s Office of Early Childhood Development and at the University of Illinois at Chicago, she co-founded the Illinois Partnership for Children and Families; and she serves on the Academic Advisory Council for the Chicago Foundation for Women.

Henly is also a faculty affiliate with a number of academic centers dealing with poverty and family policy research at the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan, and the University of Wisconsin. She is a co-director along with SSA faculty members Associate Professor Susan Lambert and Assistant Professor Marci Ybarra of SSA’s Employment Instability, Family Wellbeing, and Social Policy Network (EINet).

Her work as a William T. Grant Foundation Distinguished Fellow gives her up-close experiences that she says will shape her future research agenda.

The experience has also encouraged her to look more deeply at the relationship between state government, non-profit agencies, and families in need of services. In her future work, she wants to explore the attributions of responsibility that different actors make when programs don’t work as expected. For example, recipients of child care assistance benefits sometimes assume that the IAFC workers are state workers, rather than a contracted nonprofit organization that administers a program whose eligibility requirements are set at the state level. The implication of these blurred roles interests Henly.

Another SSA alumnus, Craig Morris, AM ’03, also contributes to the work of IAFC as the organization’s development director. He has helped raise funds for one of its projects that Henly is working on: The Sylvia Cotton Center for Policy Innovation.

The center, named after the founder of IAFC, will hold its inaugural symposium in June and Henly is helping organize the event. It will look at topics of keen interest to her research: two generational approaches for children and families, supports for working families, and labor market inequalities. Being involved in the new center is especially meaningful to Henly, as prior to her William T. Grant fellowship, she was the recipient of IAFC’s annual Sylvia Cotton Award in 2014.

“This will be a wonderful opportunity to bring together an interdisciplinary panel of national and local experts to help Action build on its past work and develop an integrated policy platform that both broadens and refines the scope of its public policy and advocacy work. Growing racial and economic inequality in the labor market, in educational and care settings, and geographically, requires urgent attention and action. I am so impressed with Action’s commitment to understanding these challenges and in pushing a public policy agenda that serves those most marginalized in our society,” she said.