Mar 8, 2012

Agency to Shutter Programs for adults with developmental disabilities

LAKELAND | For years, Florida Baptist Children's Homes has provided services for adults with developmental disabilities.

The organization, known statewide for its programs to house and counsel troubled youth and children caught up in the state's foster care system, operates an adult group home and a day training program at its statewide headquarters in Lakeland.

It is just the sort of community-based support championed by lawmakers who, more and more, look to non-governmental solutions to house and service Floridians with autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome and other handicaps.

Yet as legislators grapple with ongoing budget shortfalls that keep as many as 20,000 developmentally disabled people on a waiting list for services, the Baptist organization is bowing out of the picture.

It is closing the adult programs that have seen dwindling participation because of budget reductions to the state Agency for Persons with Disabilities. The group home, built to house seven women, has held no more than five women in recent years.

Additionally, it is discontinuing a day training program that, in its heyday, provided lessons in socializing, personal hygiene and other basic skills to as many as 22 adults. Most recently, the number has dwindled to about 15.

Officials at the Baptist homes say they're eliminating the programs in part because of the state's chronic under-funding of such services. Additionally, the agency prefers to concentrate on serving orphans, foster youth and other children through its six campuses across the state.

The adult group home opened in 1992 and "was supposed to be self-sustaining," said Charlie Cox, vice president for programs for the children's homes. But for each of the past four or five years, his agency has shelled out $40,000 to make up for cutbacks in state reimbursements.

He said another problem has been finding house parents to oversee the group home.

"We've advertised for a long period of time but very few if any have felt that specific calling, so that's been a concern," Cox said.

With no additional funding to take people off the state's ample waiting list, programs experience little or no turnover. When people leave, there's no one to take their place, leaving the community-based agencies to make greater sacrifices, such as eliminating staff, said Shirley Balogh, president and CEO of Alliance for Independence in Lakeland.

Since September, Balogh has laid off five workers. Her two group homes each accommodate four residents, two fewer than capacity.

AFI's day training program now serves only 96 people, down from 130 people a little more than five years ago. Making matters worse, Balogh said, her reimbursement rate has been reduced 25 percent for each individual served.

The only good news of late is that lawmakers never made good on a proposal to cut another $55 million from the Agency for Persons with Disabilities for the fiscal year that began July 1.

And in the current legislative session, both the House and the Senate propose increases of up to $75 million in services to the developmentally disabled for fiscal year 2012-13. That could eliminate the budget deficit that has dogged the Agency for Persons with Disabilities for the past three years.

The additional money is a drop in the bucket considering the agency's current overall budget of slightly more than $1 billion. Gov. Rick Scott has proposed reducing that to $990 million for fiscal year 2012-13.

But any increase in money for services would alleviate hardships and restore some services to some of the state's most vulnerable citizens, Balogh said.

"It's just a matter of how (the funds) are distributed and what priorities are set," she said.

Cox of the Baptist Children's Homes said there are enough programs in Polk County to facilitate the people who will no longer receive his services. Some of those in day training have already toured Balogh's agency.

Cox said he hopes the five women housed on his campus will be able to stay together, as they have forged friendships, though the decision is out of his hands.

"The placement is not our decision," he said. "It's primarily the family and the APD. But if all possible it would be great if they could find facilities that could take the ladies who want to stay together."

By Eric Pera