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Brown: Don't wait until it's too late for Early Intervention

Four-year-old Maggie Dillon, who has cerebral palsy, is among the children who have benefited from the state's early intervention program — which has received no funding since July 1.

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If your employer told you he didn’t know when he might be able to pay you again but asked you to keep working anyway, how long would you stay on the job?

How long could you afford to stick with it? Weeks? Months?

That’s the question hundreds of therapists for special-needs infants and toddlers are asking themselves right now with the state of Illinois more than two months in arrears in paying them and no relief in sight.

At the moment, their patience and professionalism is the only thing keeping thousands of developmentally disabled youngsters from falling victim to the state budget standoff between Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Illinois Legislature.

OPINION

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As each day passes, though, it’s looking more and more as if nothing will be done before those children are forced to go without the services that can make the difference between whether they learn to walk or talk or lead a more normal life.

Those who aren’t getting paid aren’t big corporations that might have built enough profit into their contacts to withstand the delays.

These are regular people like Nicole Molinaro, 39, a pediatric physical therapist from Algonquin, who works with children in the state’s Early Intervention program in northwest Cook and McHenry counties.

Molinaro is not a state employee.

She is an independent contractor, part of the large network of social service “providers” that the state of Illinois relies upon to perform some of its most important functions. Molinaro said the state owes her about $10,000.

While court orders, consent decrees and other legal protections have kept most of state government functioning as usual since July 1, when we entered a new fiscal year without a budget in place, Molinaro and the disabled children she helps are part of the forgotten 10 percent for whom no provisions have been made.

The idea behind the federally required Early Intervention program is simple: get the proper help to kids from birth to age 3 who are diagnosed with developmental delays. By intervening as early as possible, the child has a better chance of overcoming the problem and heading off the need for more expensive treatment when the child’s care becomes the responsibility of the local school district at 3.

Katie O’Mahoney-Dillon of Wheaton understands the value of the Early Intervention program more than most.

Her son had a speech delay when he was 2 and received help from an EI speech therapist who O’Mahoney-Dillon credits with being the first to suspect he might be autistic and direct the family to the proper care. The son, who has mild autism, is now doing great in school, mom reports.

Later, her daughter Maggie was born with cerebral palsy. Doctors said Maggie would never be able to walk.

Through Early Intervention, Maggie began working with Molinaro when she was 4 months old and now four years later walks unassisted except for orthotic ankle braces. Mom considers this something of a miracle — a miracle that wouldn’t have been possible without the state program.

“Without her treatment, my daughter never would have walked,” a grateful O’Mahoney-Dillon said flatly.

I could come up with thousands of stories like that. But I keep hoping somebody will reconsider before that becomes necessary.

For reasons his administration has never fully explained, Rauner had proposed major cutbacks to the Early Intervention program even before the current budget impasse. His proposal would have eliminated the services to a high percentage of families that currently receive them, by raising the level of disability before a child would qualify for help.

Rauner, who went to court to make sure state employees would continue to be paid, hasn’t shown any such concern about the Early Intervention providers.

Some of those providers have started serving 30-day notices of termination on the families with whom they work.

The governor reiterated his view this week that the state can’t afford its social service programs without concessions to business to boost the economy. A lot of families want him to know the state can’t afford to do without these programs.

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