11/01/09 — Families: State cuts hurting local mental health patients

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Families: State cuts hurting local mental health patients

By Steve Herring
Published in News on November 1, 2009 1:50 AM

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More than 20 Wayne County residents, mostly parents and guardians of adult children with mental disabilities, braved Saturday morning's rain to protest mental health program cuts.

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Ronnie Hinnant and his mother, Cynthia, huddle together under an umbrella during a rainy Saturday morning rally to protest cuts to mental health programs including HOPE, which teaches life skills, academics, domestic self-care and domestic home care for the mentally handicapped.

It troubles 70-year-old Estella Shepherd to see state budget cuts target segments of the population that are the least equipped to deal with them, such as her developmentally disabled adult son, Thomas.

For some like James Hinnant, the cuts raise alarms that other vulnerable populations such as the elderly and poor could be next.

They and the more than 20 other people who braved Saturday morning's steady drizzle said standing in the rain was a small price to pay if it draws attention to the needs of those with mental and developmental problems.

The supporters said lawmakers need to be made see the cuts in terms of the people affected and not in dollar signs.

Balancing umbrellas and protest signs, they stood on James Street in front of the Eastpointe office, a local management entity (LME), for services to persons with mental illness, developmental disability and/or substance abuse. It serves clients in Wayne, Duplin, Sampson and Lenoir counties.

Specifically, the rally was called to oppose state budget cuts that have forced the county to shorten the week for the HOPE (Helping Our Potential Employees) program. The program, which has been in the county since 1974, currently serves 45 people ages 18 and up.

HOPE participants are clients of the Adult Developmental Vocational Program and Vocational Rehabilitation program at the Wayne Opportunity Center that will go to a four-day workweek starting Monday.

The reduction in transportation and client wages is expected to save about $60,000 annually.

Center officials say there are hopeful it is a temporary cut and that funds will be restored when the General Assembly reconvenes.

Plans are to offer activities on Friday. However, no transportation will be provided, and participants will be required to pay $25 per day.

"We do life skills, academics, domestic self-care, domestic home care for the mentally handicapped," HOPE manager June Fields said. "We have a mobile crew that goes out and cleans businesses in Wayne County.

"It's just great. I have been there over 30 years. I hate for the legislature to have cut a day off starting next week. They can't come on Friday. It is going to be a hardship on a lot of families, a hardship on staff."

There is no cost to be in program.

"They should not have to pay $25 (for Fridays)," Ms. Fields said. "The money should be there for them. They should be able to come Monday through Friday. A lot of families try to work and now their loved one is going to spend the day by themselves. Some of them (participants) can't spend the day alone because they can't talk, whatever."

It isn't first time HOPE has faced the budget ax.

"Over five years ago, they were trying to close down the HOPE program on the old Wayne Community College campus," said Hinnant who organized Saturday's rally. "At that point in time, we came out and protested because the mentally challenged had no place to go and that they would just be without a program and would be out on the street wandering around. So we managed to stop that process.

"Now, we have been hit by budget cuts by our legislators, the same ones we voted in hoping that they were going to help this population and now they have turned their back on this population."

Hinnant agreed it was late in the game for a protest since the budget and its cuts have been approved.

He placed the blame on legislators whom he said had given mental health supporters the "run-around."

"Like most politicians do they promise you one thing and do something else," he said.

Now that the cuts have hit it is important to be heard or the cuts are going to continue, he added.

"It is bad enough people do not have jobs, but when you start cutting other areas, and it is always targeted against the disenfranchised, and that is why we are protesting today," Hinnant said.

Hinnant said he is concerned that along with hitting the mentally handicapped population that the elderly, low income and other disenfranchised population could be next in line.

Ms. Fields said she had been somewhat surprised by the cuts.

"I went to a forum two or three weeks ago and I understand the LME decided where everything is going to be cut," she said. "Again, I don't think that is fair because you are dealing with people's lives. That is not right. I hope we get the media's attention, legislators' attention and go on from here."

Letters have been sent to the governor's office and to legislators from the area served by Eastpointe, she said.

She has not received any replies.

Mrs. Shepherd and Danny Walker, also of Goldsboro, said they would not be affected as much by the closing as others would. However, they both worry what effect the lost day will have on their adult sons.

Walker said his 29-year-old son, Danny Lee, is autistic and moderately mentally retarded.

"He loves going to the workshop," he said. "It gets him out into the community and keeps him busy. He likes his instructors and he looks forward to going on a daily basis.

"Cutting back to four days a week is probably going to affect him. He is probably going to be bored at times. He loves June Fields and the rest of the class that goes there as well."

Walker said his wife is a homemaker so she will be home with their son.

"We both work as a team, and we take care of Danny," he said. "He has come a long ways. This HOPE program has done real well for him through the years."

Mrs. Shepherd, who is retired after 30 years at Cherry Hospital, said she is now a stay-at-home mom with her adult son, Thomas, who was at Saturday's rally.

"It is not going to affect me that much because I am not working," she said. "But I feel for the people who are because it is going to be really, really tough, a whole day. You are going to have to hire someone to take care of that individual."

What has affected Mrs. Shepherd has been cuts that eliminated the 28 hours a week of developmental therapy her son had been receiving.

"I don't have any of that any more," she said. "I have to hire somebody to come in and give him a bath. I am not able to do that any more. I am 70 years old, my knees are bad and everything, so I have to hire somebody to help him because I want him at home and I think I have done a great service for him by keeping him home.

"I think it is really, really sad the way they have cut people off with mental health services. He will be lonesome. They enjoy each others' company (at the workshop). When they are not in the workshop they are lonesome. You can tell, you can tell."

Karla Carter of Goldsboro who works with the HOPE program, has two special needs children. Her daughter is autistic and her son has cerebral palsy.

"My life is mental health," she said. "Our clients are losing services. My daughters is an 8-year-old autistic child who has lost services, completely because of these budget cuts. She is in not in the HOPE program, but I have watched my clients lose service and that is unfair. I pay tax money, my husband pays tax money and people are going without services that desperately need them.

"Where is our tax money going because it sure is not going to help our children and our families. Think of the lives that you are affecting with all of these budget cuts because these are people that you are affecting. These are people's lives you are affecting. It is not just money it is lives."

Mrs. Carter said she watched as her daughter's developmental therapy hours shrank from 20 to 12 to 6 to nothing.

Like the others at the rally, she worries about those families who have no one at home on Fridays and what will happen to the children.

"We have parents who do work," she said. "What is going to happen to them on Fridays. They (clients) have no where to go. They (families) don't have that extra money to pay somebody to watch their child."