By Randall Beach, New Haven Register
EW HAVEN >> Distraught and desperate parents, some of them in tears, attended a forum Saturday to describe how state budget cutbacks are endangering their sons and daughters who have special needs.
Invited to the New Haven People’s Center by the group Our Families Can’t Wait, about 30 parents told state legislators from the New Haven area what it’s like to take care of kids or young adults with autism and other disabilities.
Colleen McGill, an organizer for Our Families Can’t Wait, noted Connecticut residents already have seen steep cutbacks in social services and the state faces a projected deficit of up to $77.9 million for the upcoming year.
McGill said it’s time to stop making these cuts “on the backs of the disabled.”
Rick Wheatley of Hamden told the group that he and his wife, both in their 60s, have two sons with special needs. One of them is in Opportunity House, which Wheatley said is “wonderful.” But the younger son has been in “temporary” housing for about seven years.
“He’s living in one room on a third floor, sharing a downstairs bathroom,” Wheatley said of his younger son. “There aren’t enough care workers. He can’t get into a day program.”
On some occasions, Wheatley said, “He wanders the streets, Whalley Avenue. He was mugged the other day.”
Wheatley also noted that when young adults with these needs turn 21, “There is no job program, no training. These people could be viable members of our community. But the state won’t spend the money on a jobs program.”
Many of the parents who spoke during the two-hour session are worried because of their advancing ages; they don’t know who will take care of their sons and daughters when their parents are too old to do so or die.
Peggy Embardo, a widow, said she has a 27-year-old son with autism. She said he has a sweet disposition “but he can’t really talk except to say he wants food.”
Embardo said she gets some state aid for a day program. “But what happens when I can no longer take care of him? If he has to live with strangers, I won’t be there to help him make a transition.”
“In a just world,” she added, “his main life would now be outside my house. He’s on a waiting list for a place to live. I’m proud I can take care of my son. But I’m tired.”
Embardo recalled one day while she was taking a short nap, her son got into her nail polish.
“He was trying to wash his red hands off at the sink. I was wondering: ‘How do I get nail polish remover? I can’t leave him here.’ Fortunately, a neighbor had some remover. It could’ve been something much worse than nail polish.”
Donna Sadler then told about her 25-year-old son who is in a day program but needs to be watched day and night. “He can’t be left alone, ever. He can’t talk. If he doesn’t know what’s going on, his anxiety builds up. He bites himself, he bites others. He’s 250 pounds. He can overpower his mother now. His dad has a bad back and bad knees but has to lift a 250-pound guy into a tub.”
Sadler added, “We’d love to get him into a group situation where he can have his own life. We’ll be in deep trouble soon. The funding needs to be put back.”
Velma Williams-Estes told the group about the challenges of caring for her 48-year-old daughter. “I’m a widow, so it’s just the two of us. You’re by yourself; you’re alone. If something happens to me, what happens to my baby?”
Noting her pleas to the state for funding have “fallen on deaf ears,” she asked the state legislators in the room: “What should we do?”
State Sen. Gary Winfield, D-10, told the parents they should “make noise and make legislators uncomfortable. Do what you have to do to take care of your children. You deserve an answer.”
Winfield advised them to contact the leaders of both state political parties and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. As for the state legislators, Winfield said, “You need to write to every single one of them.”
State Rep. Toni Walker, D-93, who co-chairs the Appropriations Committee, said after Malloy told them he was cutting $570 million from the budget, impacting the state Department of Developmental Services, she and others tried to amend it but were told that many millions more had to be cut.
Walker said the DDS budget for 2015-16 was more than $1 billion. But for 2016-17, that figure is just $523 million.
“I’m so sick of ‘transportation infrastructure,’ I want to throw up!” Walker said, as people applauded her. “There was an increase of $400 million in transportation.”
State Rep. Patricia Dillon, D-92, said transportation spending is “guy stuff.” She asked, “Who’s going to stay home and take care of the disabled? Largely it’s women. The people who are being laid off are female workers in human services.”
State Rep. Robyn Porter, D-94, said new revenue sources are needed, such as highway tolls and legalizing marijuana. “People are smoking marijuana, whether we like it or not. We have to think outside the box.”
Walker said when people say they want smaller government, “Don’t let them get away with that. The government is our support for our families.”
McGill told the group they should try to attend a DDS funding public hearing Dec. 6 in Hartford. She also announced plans for a rally to protect and fully fund DDS outside the governor’s mansion, 990 Prospect Ave., Hartford, during the first weekend of December. The exact date and time have not yet been determined.
Call Randall Beach at 203-680-9345.