Friday, March 18, 2011

NY City finally has local housing options for people with developmental disabilities

From the Wall Street Journal:

For years, New York City parents sent their autistic children to facilities as far away as Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. Now, the children are coming home.

The driving force is a six-year-old state law that is directing millions of dollars to fund local options for special-needs children and adults in the New York area. After years without any new local facilities being built, at least five have opened since 2009. In the next three years, the state is looking to create slots for nearly 200 more youth with developmental disabilities, including autism, across greater New York

In December, after spending six years in a facility in Langhorne, Pa., 17-year-old Warin Stickelman moved to a new home in Brooklyn. Warin has both autism and Down's syndrome, and his divorced parents said they had no choice but to send him out of town in 2005 when they decided they couldn't give him the care he needed. No local facility had room for him at that time.

"The day we found out Warin would be close by, we were so happy we just cried," says father Tim Stickelman (pictured), an attorney for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

Mr. Stickelman's son (pictured) now lives at a renovated townhouse for six boys on Grove Street in Bushwick, Brooklyn, opened by the nonprofit Birch Family Services in late December.

Last week, Birch opened a second facility in a townhouse next door to serve six others. Students who live at Birch's Grove Street residences attend the nonprofit's Phyllis L. Susser School for Exceptional Children in Queens.

Birch is one of several nonprofit organizations opening local homes for the developmentally disabled. In February, SCO Family of Services opened Westbrook Preparatory School, a 24-student residential, clinical and educational facility in Westbury, N.Y. In January, SCO opened Christopher School in the Bronx to serve 24 middle- to high-school-age children. At the end of the year, HeartShare Human Services of New York plans to open two residential facilities in Bensonhurst for 14 people with autism ages 7 to 21.

The flurry of new facilities comes six years after the state Legislature passed Billy's Law, which was inspired by a Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, child who was abused at an out-of-state facility. After the law passed, state agencies told service providers that they would provide funds to operate more facilities in New York City if the providers would build them. Providers can receive between $600 and $700 per child, per day for hosting an autistic child in one of these facilities.

Residences that qualify for the state's Children's Residential Project Programs, a joint initiative between the state education department and the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities, would also receive additional compensation through the federal Medicaid program.

The number of New Yorkers ages 3 to 22 who have been diagnosed with autism has nearly doubled since 2005, to more than 21,000, according to Thoughtful House Center for Children, an autism-focused nonprofit.

Before Billy's Law was passed, the state was paying an estimated $200 million annually to out-of-state residential facilities where 1,400 youths were placed. According to a June 2010 report by the New York State Council on Children and Families, that number was down to 676, nearly cutting the state's out-of-state expenditures in half.

Still, the process of bringing the children home has been long and calculated. After a steady decline since 2005, the number of kids placed out of state actually rose in 2009, by 3%. Getting state approvals and building new residential facilities is a multi-year process, agencies say.

"It's a priority for us and families to bring students back to New York and close to their parents," says Rebecca Cort, associate commissioner for special education at the state education department. "Many of these plans were put into place several years ago and we're grateful that despite the recession most of them have continued to move through."

For Mr. Stickelman, having his son close by yields the most important return.

"At the beginning, everyone in the family visited Warin in Pennsylvania but people have their own lives and after a while it kind of trailed off," he says. "I wanted him to be part of the family."

Since Warin moved to Bushwick in January, Mr. Stickelman has been able to hop on the subway after work and make his son his favorite food: ice-cream sundaes. He has also brought him to a playground near his apartment to play on the swings. His 21-year-old daughter, who lives three blocks away, recently cooked Warin dinner at her apartment.

"He's my son," Mr. Stickelman says. "No one is ever going to take care of their child as much as his parent."