Keith Drazner, a 38-year-old autistic man with the functional understanding of a five-year-old, is the latest victim of the state of Illinois’ budget lunacy.
Twenty years ago, Drazner’s parents made the painful decision to send their son to live in a small group home in La Crosse, Wis., a 550-mile round trip from their own home in Highland Park.
Such out-of-state placements for developmentally disabled young people were common at the time because of a shortage of appropriate facilities in Illinois. The state has long been considered a laggard in the practice of housing such individuals in community settings instead of institutions.
Under the arrangement, Illinois paid the Wisconsin group home, Chrishaven, for Keith’s care. By all accounts, he has thrived in the family-like environment.
Keith holds a job in a sheltered workshop, performs household chores and enjoys bowling, swimming, dancing and monthly visits from his family.
But for the past eight months while Gov. Bruce Rauner and Illinois Democrats have butted heads over a state budget, the $117.50 per day bills from Chrishaven have gone unpaid.
Now the facility has informed the Drazners that Keith must vacate his home by March 31.
Four other former Illinois residents living in Chrishaven group homes also have been targeted with discharge notices. One of them has been there since 1988.
Officials with the agency have told their families and guardians they can no longer afford to care for the men without payment.
The news came as a shock to the Drazners, who are fearful any forced move would cause a serious setback to Keith, who suffers from seizures and sleeplessness and was troubled by behavioral problems when he was younger.
“He’s very, very attached to them. He’s not going to understand. He’s going to regress a great deal. It could touch off more seizures,” said his father, Frederick Drazner, a 69-year-old veterinarian.
The Drazners aren’t blaming the staff at Chrishaven, a small non-profit agency with group homes in La Crosse and nearby Onalaska, where Keith now lives. They just want Illinois to pay its bills so Keith can stay.
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Toward that end, they have tried to get the attention of state officials, who seem to have not noticed that people like Keith who were placed out of state long ago have fallen through the cracks of court orders intended to force payment for services to other developmentally disabled individuals during the budget impasse.
As an alternative, the Drazners are trying to have Keith recognized as a resident of Wisconsin. After all, he’s lived there for 20 years and even pays a tiny bit of state income tax through his job. But that poses legal problems as well.
“It’s a nightmare,” said his mother, Sharon, who is 68. “We’re not sleeping. This is all I deal with all day long.”
Sharon Drazner said she believes there must be other developmentally disabled individuals scattered around the Midwest who received out-of-state placements about the same time as their son — a time when there was a shortage of group homes for children and adolescents.
A source familiar with the issue said Illinois has tried in recent years to bring back many of the developmentally disabled individuals previously sent out of state, although there is no cost savings. Illinois no longer permits new out of state placements for adults.
Before he went to Wisconsin, Keith had behavioral problems — biting, kicking and the like — that made him hard to place.
“We were desperate, and there was nothing for him in Illinois,” she said.
The Drazners said Keith has been “very, very happy” at Chrishaven, where he lives in a house in a residential neighborhood with two other individuals with 24-hour supervision.
Although his verbal skills are limited, Keith has been able to work.
“He sorts things,” said his father. “He uses the paper shredder, which is his favorite.”
Drazner describes his son as funny and occasionally mischievous. On family visits, he likes seeing animated movies, then stopping at Target to buy picture books, followed by a visit to McDonald’s for chicken McNuggets, fries and a chocolate shake.
But he’s highly dependent on the Chrishaven staff for everything from bathing to getting dressed.
Keith Drazner does not deserve to be a hostage to anyone’s political games.