Brenda Thompson Credit: James Foster/Sun-Times

A state commission that was created to help African-American families is in limbo amid a debate about whether the group even exists—and whether the groups it promised money to will ever get paid.

The African American Family Commission was launched 25 years ago to help find Chicago families to care for the disproportionate numbers of black children who were living in foster care, group homes, or in out-of-state centers where they were locked in. Its mission expanded in 2014 to develop ways to strengthen and preserve African-American families, family economics, workforce participation, health status, safety, education, training and quality of life.

A spokesman for Governor Bruce Rauner’s office, Rachel Bold, said last week the agency is still active and that it could be part of the state’s strategy in helping minority families.

But former commission members say it has been basically abandoned and out of operation since late 2016, when it held its last meeting. An online list of the commission’s members shows five of 15 seats on the board have long sat empty.

The problem dates back to 2015, during the stalemate over the state budget and a grant-spending investigation.

Helen Wakefield, a retired lawyer from South Shore who served as a community member on the commission from 2013 until mid-2016, said the commission never got the budget it was promised.

The Illinois attorney general’s office had investigated the business practices and money management of black-owned nonprofit organizations who had gotten grant money during former governor Pat Quinn’s tenure. Some of those nonprofits served as community members on the commission.

But the commission itself was never directly in control of any funding. Indeed, after the investigation, Wakefield said the commission sought to highlight the great work done by black nonprofits, provide training to its community members, and work with the state of Illinois to revamp AAFC’s grant funding and oversight processes.

The commission held a summit (the same day that Rauner presented his 2015-2016 state budget) to present its Illinois Black Agenda, show that African-American businesses, organizations and nonprofits were a strong and viable force, and to demand it received its $4 million in earmarked funds.

After the economic summit, Wakefield said, “All of a sudden, the commission’s phones didn’t go through and the e-mail never worked.

“The AAFC was created to advocate for black businesses, nonprofits, and organizations to receive its fair share of mandated Illinois budgetary funding,” she said. “However, its existence has been killed by governmental opposition and politics. [It is now] no longer available as a viable resource or hub for the African-American community.”

Justina Winfrey of Austin, who served on the commission’s housing committee until the end of 2016, said Rauner’s office told the commission that it would no longer be funded.

Illinois Department of Commerce spokeswoman Jacquelyn Reineke on Friday wouldn’t confirm whether the commission was still operational, but said in a statement that “all capital grants”—which the commission gave to community groups—were suspended in March of 2015.

“The commission was notified of the suspension by the Department of Commerce and advised to halt spending and to not take on any new obligations,” she said.

The uncertainty over whether the commission will ever resume operations is costing companies and agencies that help protect vulnerable African-American children.

One group affected is E.M. Branch & Associates at 11111 S. Western Ave. in Morgan Park. The African-American-owned company is known for helping develop a supervised visitation program for domestic violence victims and their families that’s become a national model.

Brenda T. Thompson, a Bronzeville native who operates the company, says she got word that E.M. Branch had won a $25,000 grant in August of 2015.

The letter, from commission executive director Michael Holmes, said E.M. Branch “has shown great readiness and a solid foundation for our investment. Unfortunately, the budget stalemate has impacted the [commission’s] ability to release grant funds. We remain vigilant in our advocacy efforts for the Community and Economic Development Grant program and will continue to update you as information becomes available.”

Thompson said she learned from the commission that its staff members were not being paid by the state, so were unable to advocate for businesses such as hers who were in desperate need of funding—even though, essentially, that was why the grant program was created.

Over the past two and a half years, Thompson has continued to inquire about the grant. She said she was told by the governor’s office that funds still were not being released because of the state’s budget woes.

“Our expenses [are] continuing to increase, and we’re always struggling,” she said last week. “We have no shortage of clients—there aren’t a lot of people who do what we do from an African-American perspective—but we do have a shortage of funding sources.”

Ernest Webb Jr., a licensed clinical social worker in south-suburban Homewood who served on the committee that created the commission decades ago, said he believes Rauner has used the state’s funding crisis as cover to stop funding the commission because African-American issues aren’t important to the governor.

“If [he’s] going to close it down, it’s not a priority,” Webb said.

Replied Bold, “We believe in improving outcomes for African-American families.”