State phasing out its early intervention program

As part of a larger shift toward privatizing services, the state Department of Developmental Services is phasing out a state-run early intervention program for infants and toddlers over objections by public-employee unions.

Joan Barnish, a spokeswoman for the department, said there are 43 other programs run by private providers that can serve the infants and toddlers who need early intervention services. The staff of the state-run program, Early Connections, will be redeployed.

“No one’s going to be without services, and no one’s going to lose their job,” she said.

But the unions that represent workers who staff the programs plan to fight the closure. Union officials said it doesn’t make sense to reassign teachers, physical therapists and other workers who specialize in working with young children.

“Our position is that the best use of their time and their skill set is serving families in Early Connections,” said Matt O’Connor, spokesman for CSEA/SEIU Local 2001.

Early Connections is part of the state’s Birth to Three System, which serves young children with delays or disabilities and includes 44 local programs.

The 43 programs run by private providers serve between 4,500 and 4,600 children. Early Connections serves 223, and will remain open until they either age out or otherwise leave the program. It won’t accept new enrollment.

The program had been slated to close as part of the budget cuts made last month after state employee unions rejected a concessions deal said to be worth $1.6 billion over two years. The cuts were rescinded after the unions approved a clarified concessions package last week, and O’Connor said it was a surprise that Early Connections was being phased out. The program has 47 employees, according to the July budget document.

“Members would say they don’t understand why after saving the state $1.6 billion, why a vital public service like early connections needs to be closed,” he said.

Barnish said the closure is part of a shift in the agency toward moving services to the private sector when possible. The department also has stopped accepting new enrollment in state-run adult day or residential programs.

In 2009, the department stopped accepting new enrollment in Early Connections, but ultimately reopened it. At the time, unions fought the move to stop enrollment, and officials said Friday they would do the same this now.

“We’re going to do what we can to stop this,” said Deborah Chernoff, a spokeswoman for the New England Health Care Employees Union, District 1199, which represents 15 Early Connections workers. She said that will include talking to legislators and making the closure a public issue

“We’re extremely upset about it and think it is a very bad decision,” she said, adding that it was “a real reversal and betrayal” for the department to close a program it had praised in the past.

O’Connor said some towns don’t have private providers, so families could have to travel for early intervention programs.

Molly Cole, director of the Connecticut Council on Developmental Disabilities, said the closure of Early Connections had been discussed in the past, in part because some of the people who worked in the program were retiring. She praised the program staff as “wonderful, wonderful people,” but said that there are enough providers in the private sector to serve families who need them.

“We all sort of knew that at some point, this was going to end,” she said.