This is the first in a series of posts about what happened—the good, the bad, and the ugly—for families during the Texas legislative session. The series kicks off with a mixed report about a program for babies and toddlers with special needs, plus one local mom’s efforts to save it. Over on our Mommy Mob page, we also have a new “motivational” to get your activist juices flowing. Check out this week’s addition on believing you can make a difference.
I work with a lot of “professional” advocates, who do a lot of good work at the Texas Capitol promoting policies to help children and families. But it was a local mom who really had me in awe this session. Austin’s very own Debby Clarke refused to let legislators ignore ECI, a program that provides early childhood intervention services to infants and toddlers with developmental delays or disabilities. Debby saw how the program benefited her twin girls, mostly by teaching Debby things she could do on a daily basis to promote their development. She couldn’t just stand by knowing that other families would end up losing access to the same opportunity.
So while her daughters slept, she made phone calls. She and her twin 2-year-old girls made a day of visiting legislative offices, letting them know what the program is and how it helps not just individual families who receive services, but also the state (children in the program end up needing fewer programs and services as they grow older than kids like them who missed getting ECI). The trio even endured seven hours at the Capitol one day— they were down to their last diapers!— just for the chance to testify before a legislative committee supporting a bill that would have brought more private insurance dollars into regional ECI programs. You can read her testimony here. Debby did this knowing her efforts wouldn’t benefit her daughters, who will soon age out of the ECI program, but out of concern for the babies, toddlers, and their families who would no longer have access to a program that has made such a difference for her girls. Watching her that day, I couldn’t help but be inspired.
While ECI may be very familiar to families with young children with developmental delays or disabilities, it’s often not so familiar to those who aren’t faced with the unique challenges these families encounter. This is true even for our state legislators. The Legislature convened in January facing a $20-some billion state revenue deficit, a slew of new lawmakers arriving at the Capitol chomping at the bit to cut programs, and the media and Legislature’s attention focused on more visible and far-reaching programs like public schools and Medicaid. I didn’t have much hope that we could get the Legislature to do right by little ol’ ECI. Sure, I could try raising awareness about what was happening, letting both legislators and people interested in early childhood issues know what was happening, but I didn’t really think that we’d be able to soften the coming blow of a nearly $60 million cut proposed for the program. That cut would have resulted in about 6,000 infants and toddlers across Texas losing access to services each month from programs like Any Baby Can, Easter Seals Central Texas, and Austin Travis County Integral Care.
Boy, was I wrong. Just as parents can tell you not to underestimate their children with delays or disabilities, I shouldn’t have underestimated the power of ECI advocates. My organization, Texans Care for Children, worked with other concerned groups to sound the alarm—calling on legislators to not overlook ECI. We set up a listserv and web presence for people all across Texas who were interested in ECI to let them know what was happening with the program and how they could speak out and show their support for it. Call they did, and legislators listened. They may not have been familiar with the program before, but once voters in their district started calling them about it, they started asking questions.
And you know what? They went and put about $20 million back into the state’s ECI program. While the program still faces a cut, the cuts won’t be as drastic and fewer infants and toddlers will be turned away. I have little doubt that this would not have happened without those concerned people like Debby, all across the state, taking the time to visit an office or simply pick up the phone and make a call for ECI. Because of them, about 1,700 more children will receive ECI services than would have if people didn’t take the time to speak out. Rock stars, every single one of them.
How can you make a difference? Don’t worry, you needn’t be a powerhouse like Debby (although we can help you be one, if you like!). It often really is as simple as making a phone call (or a few) to express a concern or show your support. The call can be to your child’s school, your city council, or your state or federal legislators. Because unless people communicate their views to the people who create the policies and laws we must live by, how will our policymakers know what really matters to Texas families? Even when they don’t do what we ask, they’ll know we are watching—and voting.
Written by: Josette Saxton