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State Reinstates Funding For Disabled Infants; But Is It Too Little Too Late?

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Families with babies, from birth until they're three years old, are eligible for state assistance to help their children learn and grow. It's called early intervention. But without a budget, Illinois stopped paying the therapists who provide these services. Now, the comptroller and the governor's administration says they've come up with a way to pay again, even though Illinois still has no budget in place.

When Tamiko Schaefer's baby Daniel was about six months old, she started noticing something.

"He wasn't rolling over like he should," she says. "He was very stiff. He wasn't crawling like normal children do."

Now Daniel's 19 months. And his mom says he's not the same little boy, "he's started crawling. He can climb up on furniture. He is taking a few steps on his own."

Schaefer credits the therapists who've worked with Daniel for much of his young life.

This month she says he was supposed to get help through Illinois' Early Intervention program -- speech and occupational therapy.

"He's still babbling, and normally at 19 months, a child is talking a few sentences, can walk without falling. And my son's balance is not there."

Shaefer lives in Stoy, a small village in south-eastern Crawford County, where she says she hadn't paid any attention to the state's budget situation.

That is, until she got a call that a therapist wouldn't be working with Daniel anymore. Illinois' been without a budget since July, meaning Early Intervention has gone unfunded. Meaning therapists weren't getting paid.

While some therapists have worked on a virtual-volunteer basis, others can't afford it, and have closed up shop.

Shaefer says she's worried. "I have a brother who cna't talk and I don't want my son to have the same issues," she says.

Researchers believe therapy at these early ages is critical; reaching children as early as possible leads to the biggest leaps in their brain and motor skills development.

Babies should develop in leaps and bounds; so while missing out on months of therapy doesn't sound like long, the consequences are compounded. Supporters of "EI" say that working with infants and toddlers saves money later, by lessening kids' needs when they're older; some studies say it even leads to reduced prison rates.

Which is why parents and providers were delighted with the sudden announcement from Comptroller Leslie Munger. Munger says Illinois *will* now be able to pay for Early Intervention.

No, Illinois still doesn't have a budget, so here's how: Already, a lot of money is flowing out of the state's bank accounts -- mostly because of court orders for requires the state fund services like community care for people with mental illness; home help for seniors on Medicare; foster kids. There are at least dozen such consent decrees in place. Early Intervention wasn't a part of any of them.

Now, it will be.

"We've had so many phone calls on Early Intervention that we went back, and worked with the agency to see if some of these weren't covered under some of the consent decrees," Munger said Wednesday.

Munger's press release says after a close examination, her office and the Department of Human Services say found that yes, Early Intervention could be included.

It's a huge relief for moms like Tamiko Schaefer.

But parents and providers alike say they're still worried; Schaefer says she hasn't talked yet to her therapists to see if they'll be back to see Daniel.

Or if Munger's announcement may have come too late.

Benny Delgado Jr. is president of the Illinois Developmental Therapy Association, and owns Leaps and Bounds Family Services Inc., in suburban Chicago. He says providers have been yanked around for years, through the state's budget struggles and swelling bill backlogs. They get paid one month, then two months go by without a check.

"And so now they're a little leery, of ... you know, are we going to get consistent payments? Are they going to release it a little bit of a time like they have done for years now? It continues to be an issue."

Delgado says damage is already done: some providers have moved away from Illinois, or gotten other jobs. Delgado says in McHenry county, providers had maxed out a line of credit and gave notice to families that services would stop in 30 days. DuPage was to be next.

"I just can't tell myself to tell a family that I'm not going to be there next week, to help their child walk or talk or to learn to eat. I mean there was tears shed, I mean, as providers had to make these difficult decisions."

There are other reasons for providers and parents to remain worried.

For one -- although the comptroller and Dept. of Human Services are using the consent decrees to justify funding Early Intervention services, Gov. Bruce Rauner's office has previously said it wants to do away with them. He's said the court mandates are overused and constraining.

Steve Brown, the spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan, says it's enough to cause whiplash.

"The whole technique is really I mean, pretty embarrassing. You know, they say one day we can't pay this, and then make a U-Turn and pay something, you know, pay it. And it just causes a huge level of chaos and disruption to families all over Illinois that's totally unnecessary."

Brown says it need not have gotten to this point. Democrats blame Rauner for rejecting most of the budget they'd passed to him this spring, leaving the state without spending authority.

But Rauner says he vetoed it because it was out of balance.

Which brings up another point.

Projections show that with all of the consent decrees and automatic spending, and even without major sections of state services getting paid, Illinois is on track to spend more than it takes in from taxes.

Without a budget, and the revenue to back it up, the future for Illinois is uncertain. And by extension, the future's uncertain for 19-month old Daniel. His mom, Tamiko Shaefer, says at this point, she has more questions than answers.

Shaefer may have ignored the partisan gridlock in Springfield before now. But today, the politicians have her attention.

Amanda Vinicky moved to Chicago Tonight on WTTW-TV PBS in 2017.
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