By Julie Shapiro
LOWER MANHATTAN — Programs that help developmentally delayed children have started closing across the city, with managers saying state budget cuts made it all but impossible for them to operate.
Even though the state restored half of the $11 million that was slated to be cut from Early Intervention programs this spring, the ultimate $5.5 million reduction was still too big a burden for many city programs to bear, operators said.
At least five local centers are shutting down their Early Intervention programs this spring, including AHRC in the Financial District, SteppingStone Day School in Queens, Programs for Special Children on Staten Island and Birch Family Services in Washington Heights and Brooklyn, service providers and advocates said.
More are expected to follow.
"Early Intervention is being demolished," said Leslie Grubler, founding director of United New York Early Intervention Providers.
"Both our children and our providers are going to suffer because of this. These kids are not going to get the help they need."
All of the programs that are closing either declined to comment or did not respond to calls for comment. The state Health Department also did not immediately comment.
Early Intervention offers free, intensive therapy to children from birth to age three who have autism or other developmental delays.
The idea behind the program is to rewire the children's still-malleable brains before their early delays become long-term disabilities, and to develop physical delays to minimize the effect they have on development.
But the state has consistently slashed funding to the program, cutting therapists' pay 10 percent last year and five percent this year, advocates said. The state also made administrative changes that disproportionately hurt New York City-based programs, effectively cutting another third of local therapists' pay, advocates said.
This month, Grubler surveyed her 1,500 members, who include behavioral therapists, physical therapists and special education experts, and found that 75 percent of them plan to leave Early Intervention because of the pay cuts.
Even some centers that are still continuing to offer services after the cuts wonder how much longer they'll be able to stay afloat.
"We come to work every day thinking this could be our last week, our last month," said Leah Esther Lax, co-founder of Hand In Hand Development, a therapy center on Grand Street.
Lax said it's hard to find therapists who are willing to work for decreasing wages, and she worries how she will save enough money to administer the program. At the same time, she's getting flooded with calls from parents whose programs are closing and want to know if she can help.
Lax and other advocates believe Early Intervention is well worth the investment: More than half of the children who receive Early Intervention services are able to enroll in mainstream classes when they start school, which saves the state money in the long run, Lax said. For every dollar the state spends on Early Intervention, the government ultimately saves about $7, Lax said.
"This is the only shot we have at completely changing a child and a family's trajectory," Lax said. "Kids really can get cured when you start early."
State Sen. Tony Avella and Assemblyman David Weprin tried to halt this year's cuts by introducing legislation that bars the state Department of Health from reducing the reimbursement rates below their 2010 levels. In both the Senate and the Assembly, the bill is still in the Health Committee and has not received a vote.
After Lax spoke at a Community Board 1 meeting this week, the board's Youth and Education Committee voted unanimously to support the legislation and oppose the cuts. They plan to urge other community boards in the city to take up the cause as well.