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Brown: Helping disabled kids not a state priority

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Therapists who help infants and toddlers overcome developmental disabilities and delays haven’t been paid by the state of Illinois for two months now.

While many of these therapists are continuing to provide services out of dedication to their young clients, some have been forced to quit the state program out of financial necessity, leaving families without crucial supports at a critical time in their children’s lives.

This is one of the places where the rubber is already meeting the road in the state budget standoff.

OPINION

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Though most of state government continues to operate as usual because of court orders and other legal requirements, some important programs have been left by the wayside because they have no such protections in place when there is no budget.

I’ve been telling you about the problems this has created for child care and preschool programs.

Also being neglected is the state’s early intervention program, which provides help to  20,000 children from birth to age 3 in Illinois who have been diagnosed with serious developmental problems.

These are kids like 2-year-old Micaela Jordan, who weighed only 1 pound, 15 ounces when she was born at 24 weeks with a severe brain hemorrhage.

Because of Micaela’s condition, a full array of therapists — physical, speech, occupational, developmental and more — was put to work to help prepare her for a successful entry to school.

Micaela doesn’t walk or talk yet, but one of her therapists has her working on sign language, and her mom reports Micaela has gone from being unable to eat to “eating everything in sight.”

The doctors who at first would not offer a long-term prognosis now tell her mother that in five years others won’t be able to tell Micaela had any issues.

Mecole Jordan, 33, chokes up as she tells me this, indicating she’s both grateful to the early intervention therapists who have brought Micaela this far and fearful that it’s all about to be pulled out from under her.

The program was created in recognition there’s a need to get help as soon as possible to children with developmental delays to head off more severe issues later.

The organizations and individuals who provide early intervention services are not employees of the state. They work under contract, which is how most social services are delivered in Illinois.

Teresa Filipiak, Micaela’s physical therapist, said the state hasn’t paid her for May, June or July. She’s just now submitting her paperwork for August.

Filipiak, 62, has been doing this work more than 30 years and doesn’t want to stop.

“I just want to stay with my kids,” she said. “I see the progress. I can see how this is important for the families and for the kids.”

But she’s not sure how much longer she can keep going without getting paid.

In late June, Department of Human Services secretary-designate James Dimas sent a letter to providers under this program and others asking them to continue providing services but warning that they can’t be paid until a state budget is approved.

Mecole Jordan, who lives in Auburn Gresham on Chicago’s South Side, also is in danger of losing her job because of the lack of funding for the Early Intervention Program. She works as a service coordinator for Easter Seals, which helps operate the program on the South Side and in the south suburbs.

Jordan functions as a case manager, connecting families with the therapists their child needs and in the last week has seen two therapists drop out because of nonpayment.

Easter Seals isn’t being paid either, but for now has been able to keep its staff while waiting for the budget impasse to end.  Jordan knows that can’t go on forever.

In hopes of finding an alternate path to funding the program, lawyers for advocacy groups are considering a lawsuit under an existing federal consent decree that required the state to establish the Early Intervention Program.

Beyond the larger budget stalemate, Gov. Bruce Rauner has recommended severe cuts to the program by changing the eligibility criteria so that thousands of children would not qualify for help.

This is starting to get out of hand, folks. Time to get off the fence, choose up sides, make your voices heard. You should know by now where I stand.

Follow Mark Brown on Twitter: @MarkBrownCST

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