The Texas Legislature has cut $15 billion out of its budget for the next two years, affecting virtually every state agency and almost all state services. Bluebonnet Trails, a mental health services provider based in Williamson County, has lost more than a quarter of its funding.
At the beginning of the legislative session, Andrea Richardson, Bluebonnet Trails' executive director, was pleasantly surprised when the budget reductions she thought would force Bluebonnet to cut services to 2,000-plus individuals never materialized. But she was soon unpleasantly surprised by the dramatic cuts to programs serving people with developmental disabilities.
“We’re looking at cutting about 470 persons from our services list,” Richardson says.
That's far fewer than 2,000, but it’s little consolation to those on the sharp end of the budget blade, like Joe Goode.
Goode suffers from the genetic condition known as fragile X syndrome, which has slowed his mental development. For the last three years, he has worked at a movie theater.
“I like the movie theater a lot,” Goode says. “People are good and my bosses are nice to me. It’s quite fun. I take tickets from people, tell them what theaters to go to.”
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Goode's mother, Diane, says her son has been able to get several jobs over the years, but that most have ended with Joe losing focus, forgetting to stay on task and ultimately being fired. Now, though, a Bluebonnet Trails job coach checks in on Joe. Without that help, he would have lost that job, too, Diane says.
“It really took the intervention and the help of the job coach to be that liaison between Joe and the manager in order to convince them that Joe ultimately would be a great employee and should keep his job,” Diane Goode says.
But budget cuts mean fewer coaches, who will have fewer hours to spend with the same number of clients. That’s the case with most services offered to people with developmental disabilities and their families.
“With the cut in funding, it is clear to us that we will have fewer persons that we will be able to serve,” Richardson says. “The wait will be longer, and we will be able to provide fewer services to families in need.”
Another example: The Applied Behavior Analysis program, offered to families with autistic children, helps children and families develop strategies to address behavior, academics and social skills.
Richardson says budget cuts will force the program to narrow its focus.
“If we work on the top two [priorities], will that get you into a successful position with your family?” Richardson says. “Those are the kinds of things that the families provide feedback to us about. [That way we can ensure] that we’re working with the entire family unit, not just with the child.”
At the Bluebonnet Trails offices, Karen Godfrey talked with her son Timothy about a drawing he was doing of Mickey Mouse. Timothy and his brother, Zachary, are autistic. They were on a waiting list to receive ABA services from Bluebonnet Trails when Zachary had a medical crisis and ended up in a state hospital. Karen Godfrey says Zachary was headed to a group home when he received an emergency waiver to receive services.
“For us, our family was kept together because of Bluebonnet,” Godfrey says. “Otherwise we would not be a full family anymore.”
She says the difference between life with and without an ABA therapist is dramatic — from chaos to moments of what she says other people would consider normalcy.
“Our a-ha moment was when Zachary finally went [and] got his plate,” Godfrey says. “[He put] broccoli on his plate, came back to the table and ate it. And we were like 'woo-hoo, high-five.' Then he took his plate back and washed his hands, and he says, all done. And then he left.”
For Ishele Graves and her daughter, 10-year-old Mikaela Massey, getting into an ABA program had similar, if less dramatic, effects. Mikaela started having conversations with classmates. She learned techniques to calm down when she because frustrated.
“Potentially, had she not gone through this therapy, she could be … sitting in a special ed class right now,” Graves says.
But Mikaela has graduated from an ABA program, and her mother has her back on the waiting list for another. The first time, they waited two and a half years for services.
Graves believes it will take at least twice as long this time. She says the difference between receiving services or not could be the difference between her daughter being a productive part of society and relying on social services for the rest of her life.