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Children's Program Boost Makes Budget

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After worries about cuts earlier in the year, $13 million is being added to the state’s Early Steps program, which serves babies and toddlers with developmental disabilities or delays.

House and Senate budget negotiators initially agreed on $3 million for Early Steps -- and Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, added $10 million to the program as legislative leaders finished hammering out a $78.7 billion budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

Gov. Rick Scott included the program in his final budget, signed Tuesday.

The phrase "a phoenix rising from the ashes" circulated among children's advocates after Gardiner's move, said Diana Ragbeer of the Children's Trust in Miami.

"I believe that our cries were heard," Ragbeer said. "Now with this extra money, we can ensure that the program is going to be back on track."

Gardiner, whose son has Down syndrome, has made a priority of issues involving children with developmental disabilities. He said last week he thought adding the $10 million was the "right thing to do."

"There are not many opportunities when you are in this chair, to maybe put some moneys in areas that aren't sometimes at the forefront," he said. "For me, I decided to do it."

The Children's Trust, the Florida Developmental Disabilities Council and other groups had asked lawmakers for $5 million for Early Steps this year, citing increased demand for services and reduced funding from the Florida Department of Health, where Early Steps is housed.

Experts say the younger that children are diagnosed and treated, the greater the chance they'll reach school age ready to learn.

Early Steps providers reported a 5 percent increase in enrollment and a 6.5 percent increase in referrals this year, according to the Florida Developmental Disabilities Council.

Meanwhile, blaming a budget shortfall, the Department of Health in February cut 13 full-time administrative positions from the Early Steps central program office --- most of the staff. Additionally, the department is planning further cuts to some of the 15 local Early Steps offices statewide.

Although Surgeon General John Armstrong told the Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee that no direct services would be affected by the Early Steps cuts, advocates were skeptical.

"I find it hard to believe that you can take away all the administration of a program and it's not going to impact services," said former state Rep. Loranne Ausley, D-Tallahassee, whose son Will was born severely premature, received early intervention services from the program and is now "a thriving 12-year-old."

Ausley and other advocates have long warned that Early Steps was badly under-funded, and the program's providers had been wary of further reductions.

In January, the Department of Health backed off a different plan to cut $4.2 million from Early Steps. Officials had notified the local Early Steps programs that the money would be taken from their budgets in the middle of the fiscal year. But when the flap became public, the department cut administrative positions instead.

Department of Heath spokeswoman Mara Burger said this week it was too soon to say how much the department would cut from Early Steps.  Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations Chairman Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, said he has heard Department of Health officials are in the process of negotiating new contracts with Early Steps providers.

"I'm hoping the cuts will be minimal," Garcia said. "Some of the providers have some concerns as to the reduction in personnel at the Department of Health. That is something we're going to continuously monitor, work with the Department of Health and the surgeon general to make sure that there are no more cuts, to ensure that this program lasts for quite some time."

According to the Department of Health, 43,788 children were referred to Early Steps in fiscal year 2013-2014. Of those, 27,265 children and families received early-intervention services.

The Children's Home Society board asked lawmakers to study the Early Steps program, and Gardiner has directed Senate staff to review the program over the summer.