(Updated 4:43 p.m.) When the Department of Developmental Services announced in July it wouldn’t be accepting any new enrollments to its Early Connections program, only one family chose to transfer out of the last public program in the state for infants and toddlers with developmental delays or disabilities.
Mary Halloran, a teacher at the program, said families chose to wait to see if the unions would ratify the $1.6 billion labor agreement. They did. But the program which currently serves 223 infants and toddlers is still being phased out over the next three years as the agency begins to get out of the business of offering direct services.
Parents, teachers, and union advocates marched down Capitol Avenue in Hartford to the state agency’s headquarters Thursday afternoon to ask it to reconsider its position.
Tom Rolfe, a parent of twins who went through the Early Connections program, said if it wasn’t for the program his kids, now in third grade, would still be behind.
“Instead, they’re no longer in any kind of special education,” Rolfe said.
Rolfe said he was one of the parents who transferred his kids from one of the 43 privately run programs to Early Connections because of the quality of care and the experience of the staff.
Many of the teachers who spoke Thursday had been with the Department of Development Services for more than 30 years.
None of the teachers will lose their jobs when the program closes because of the four years of job security they received when they voted in favor of the labor agreement.
“Over the next three years, the remaining 30 DDS employees currently working for Early Connections will be gradually reassigned to work filling current vacant positions in the department,“ Joan Barnish, spokeswoman for DDS, said in a statement. “The agency savings will be realized by not having to hire new staff.”
Keondra Dillard of Colebrook said it’s the staff that makes the program work so well.
Dillard, who has had eight foster children with varying and severe disabilities, said Early Connections has been a huge help to those children.
She said the only other private sector program in the eastern part of the state was scared to even touch one of her children, who had a tracheotomy, and failed to even give the one who was blind any attention. She said the staff at Early Connections had no problem diving right in and figuring out what they could do to help.
“I quickly learned the children that I cared for needed more support and higher quality care,” Dillard said.
Brianna Chase of Torrington whose two year old Liam is currently in Early Connections said he was one of the most “difficult cases” for one of the workers in the program.
“He pushed her, and he pushed her, and he pushed her. She never gave up,” Chase said. “You’re not going to find that in every program.”
She said if something didn’t work they tried something new. She said her son didn’t walk until he was 19 months old and he still has balance issues, but he’s talking before his cousin who is more than a year and a half older than him.
“My son isn’t going to end up in special education because of the workers I’ve had,” Chase said.
But the agency said ending enrollment in the program is just one of the ways they’re “slowly decreasing direct services from the public sector over several years.”
The annual cost of serving one infant or toddler in the publicly run Early Connections is approximately $20,000 while the same service offered by the contracted providers is $8,400.
In addition to Early Connections, the agency has stopped admissions to publicly operated adult day and residential programs.
But the union, which represents the employees in the program, said they won’t be giving up the fight to save the program.
Paul Fortier, vice president of SEIU District 1199, said they will ask lawmakers to hold hearings on the decisions to phase out these programs.
“We’re not giving up,” Fortier said.