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Disabled children under age 3 will feel cuts from program’s budget

Last week was one of those sweet-and-sour weeks for Mary Ellen Stephen.

As she retired as program director of Nevada Early Intervention Services for Southern Nevada, a program she started in 2003, she was touched when a mother came to her retirement party and thanked her for what she did for the woman’s son when she was the boy’s developmental specialist about 18 years ago.

But on Thursday, she felt bad as legislators cut $407,000 from the state program that provides free services for disabled children under the age of 3.

“Of course it’s upsetting to have to cut services for children, but their hands are tied. The money’s not there,” Mary Ellen said Friday.

The cut was part of the initial $52 million cut for this fiscal year that the Legislature agreed to after Gov. Jim Gibbons called a special session to reduce state spending by $275 million to balance the budget. The $407,000 is about 2 percent of early intervention’s $20.3 million budget, slightly less than the 3 percent agency average cut. But that didn’t mean it hurts any less to see cuts to disabled children who are among the most vulnerable.

This round of cuts for the little-known program means one satellite site in Las Vegas is closed, 27 job vacancies remain vacant and belts are tightened in operating costs and contracts.

It’s the next round of cuts Mary Ellen fears. That’s when she dreads seeing layoffs among Nevada Early Intervention Services’ 188 state employees and 125 temporary contract employees, such as speech therapists.

If you know a disabled child under the age of 3, you may or may not know about Nevada Early Intervention Services, which made news recently.

Two of the program’s developmental specialists and one schoolteacher repeatedly reported Colleen and Stan Rimer to Clark County Department of Family Services. The county agency repeatedly closed the cases. Now the parents are charged with second-degree murder for 4-year-old Jason Rimer’s death after he was locked in a family vehicle for 17 hours and died of heat stress.

Early intervention developmental specialists go to the homes of disabled children and work with the child and the parents. They consider every aspect of the child’s needs, trying to help develop various skills.

Officials estimate the cost averages $847 a month per child served. During the last fiscal year, 3,653 disabled children received early intervention services.

It’s a voluntary program and it’s not just for the poor. Anyone with a disabled child can apply, and the services are free. Once they turn 3, the children move into the school district’s special education program.

Mary Ellen, a mother of three and grandmother of eight, had been in the field of special education for 35 years, before retiring at age 65. She started with the state’s former Division of Mental Hygiene and Mental Retardation in 1972.

In 1980, she developed the early intervention program First Step in Las Vegas. In 2003, the Legislature merged First Step with the Special Children’s Clinic and created Nevada Early Intervention Services, placing it under the state’s Health Division.

As a retiree, she’s free to speak her mind. So, when I asked her what she’d do if she had a magic wand and could change the system, she offered something that she’s obviously thought through: Move Nevada Early Intervention Services away from the Health Division to the Department of Education, where she believes it would be protected from those who want early intervention services privatized.

“I want EIS put somewhere where it’s safe,” she said. “The Health Division doesn’t want it, because with it comes some liability.”

Mary Ellen said Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley told a meeting of state employees Thursday that by the time the Legislature goes into session next February, the 14 percent budget cuts won’t be enough. The cuts probably will total 20 percent.

Cut those services even more, and those disabled children will cost the taxpayers more in later years. Early intervention is a known cost saver.

We’re all belt-tightening, but can’t programs for our weakest children be spared deeper cuts … in memory of Jason Rimer and the 3,600 disabled children under 3 who were helped last year?

Jane Ann Morrison’s column appears Monday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail her at Jane@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0275.

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