SPRINGFIELD — Illinois Department of Human Services officials defended increases in their budget they say would help with challenges that face the agency.

Grace Hou, secretary designate of the agency, said the past several years have not been easy.

“Staffing shortages, technical challenges, budget cuts, leadership gaps have created bad outcomes for our agency and those who serve, for our community partners and those who are employed by DHS as well,” she told a Senate Appropriations committee on Tuesday.

Hou has been working with the Department of Healthcare and Family Services and Central Management Services to address the issues.

Preliminary plans include an increase in staffing, improved training, updated procedures and oversight of agency vendors and partners.

Hou said this is “one of the strongest budgets” the department has presented over the past several years.

She pointed to more money in the budget for child care, people with disabilities and other services.

DHS is also asking for an $80 million supplemental appropriation for the home services program. Of that money, $40 million will go to health insurance, $20 million will go to wage increases and $20 million will go to deal with the caseload growth.

In a settlement with the Service Employees International Union, individual providers in the home services program will receive a wage increase of 48 cents an hour, to be included on paychecks for services provided after April 1.

Department of Human Services chief financial officer Bob Brock said in past years, the agency was asked to cut its budget. One of the cuts previously submitted was a reduction in health insurance paid to SEIU and the home services program. When the budget was enacted, the money was not put back into it.

“When the decision was made to pay the insurance anyway, that instantly created a $40 million hole in the home services program,” Brock said.

Because of this, they decided to pay the 48 cents an hour increase into escrow. That, combined with a growth in home services caseload, led to this year’s $80 million request.

Sen. Dale Righter, R-Mattoon, questioned the agency’s need for a $30 million increase for its Child Care Assistance program.

“As I understand it, we over-appropriated and there weren’t that many people who were taking advantage of the program,” he said.

Sen. Ram Villivalam, D-Chicago, said according to numbers he had, before 2015, there was a 40 percent of eligible families used the Child Care Assistance Program.

“Now it’s at 30 percent,” he said. “When we have a situation where 69 percent of eligible families are not taking this program, a program designed for working parents, or parents going to school to get a better job, to put their kids in a safe learning environment ... to me, we have a lot of work to do there.”

Brock said the agency agreed it is going to lapse money but had assumed they were going to see the childcare caseload come back.

“We’ve had that assumption now for a couple of years,” he said. “But for some reason we don’t fully understand, it has stagnated. The $30 million request was based on the assumption last fall that the caseload was going to continue growing.”

The Department of Human Services has increased eligibility for the program, though, and expects the caseload to grow by around 17,000.

Hou said she suspects the challenges associated with the budget impasse have discouraged families from participating.

“(In) many instances, there’s been a lot of unknowns as ... to why the caseload has been operating the way that it has,” Hou said. “I’m not exactly sure yet what the most effective ways to make sure that those who are eligible for the program are actually in the program, but I believe that one of the ways is to really strongly partner with community partners ... to look at the program. I imagine people who are on the front line understand what the barriers are for parents to get involved.”