Special Education, a Fragile Future: Virginia Budget Gaps
Diminish Transition Options
by William Branigin, Washington Post, September 15, 2003
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Ted Nigh wants
his friends to know that life in the nursing home is all right
and that they shouldn't hesitate to visit him. He is getting
good care and gets along well with the staff.
The problem is, he has difficulty relating to most of the other
Nigh is 20 years old, a 2002 graduate of Falls Church High
School. He is also a quadriplegic with cerebral palsy. With no
programs available to help Nigh after graduation, his father, a
single parent, felt he had little choice but to put his son in a
nursing home that accepts Medicaid patients. Sam Nigh, 54, who
was recently laid off from his job at an insurance company, said
he hopes that some alternative will come through next year.
"They're doing a good job taking care of me," Ted Nigh said of
the 180-bed nursing home in Manassas where he has lived since
May. But his stay "is becoming too long," he added. "You just
get aggravated. . . . I don't want nursing home life to become a
Like all states, Virginia is required by federal law to provide
special education to disabled students such as Nigh. But
increasingly, advocates say, the millions of dollars spent on
this education are going to waste as budget cuts whittle down
the programs that allow special education graduates to
transition to jobs and more independent lives. This creates
added burdens for parents, who sometimes must sacrifice their
own jobs to stay home and care for their disabled children.
"Recent budget crunches and tax cuts have further stressed a
system that is already very inadequate," said Kathy May, lead
advocate for The Arc of Northern Virginia, a local affiliate of
the national advocacy group The Arc, which promotes the rights
of people with mental retardation and other developmental
More than 4,000 mentally retarded people are on waiting lists
for services in Virginia, and nearly 1,000 need urgent care
under Medicaid, according to Teja Stokes, executive director of
the group's state chapter in Richmond, The Arc of Virginia.
Although the state's per capita income is 14th highest in the
nation, Virginia ranks 45th in spending and 47th in the growth
of community placements per capita for people with mental
retardation and developmental disabilities, Stokes said.
To call attention to the situation, The Arc of Virginia is
organizing a march on the state Capitol on Saturday and expects
thousands to participate.
"Virginia has failed her citizens with disabilities year after
year, never fully realizing federal matching monies available to
provide meaningful residential and employment options," Stokes
said in a news release announcing the march. Because the state
"has failed to build and sustain an adequate community-based
support system for [special education] graduates," she said,
"millions of dollars are wasted on students who complete high
school to find no support with job transition and independent
The Arc of Virginia wants the state to spend $28 million for
1,300 new "Medicaid waiver slots" in its next two-year budget so
that people with mental retardation and developmental
disabilities can receive services paid for in part by federal
matching funds. The group is also urging Virginia to raise its
Medicaid reimbursement rate for the first time in 12 years, at a
cost of $15 million in fiscal 2005, to encourage more private
providers to offer services to the mentally retarded.
According to a study last year by the University of Colorado,
Virginia was one of 13 states that recorded increases in the
number of people with mental retardation or developmental
disabilities living in nursing homes between 1996 and 2000.
Virginia's total grew by 17 percent -- to 1,272, or about 18 per
100,000 people. By comparison, the rate dropped by 3 percent in
the District, to 7 per 100,000 people, and by 74 percent in
Maryland, to 2 per 100,000 people.
In Fairfax County, the Community Services Board -- which serves
people with mental illness, mental retardation and substance
abuse problems -- was hit by more than $7.8 million in state and
local budget cuts in fiscal 2003 and 2004. Faced with the
prospect that scores of mentally disabled students would have
nowhere to go after completing high school, families and board
members scrambled. Some of the disabled were kept in school
(federal law allows them to stay until age 22), while others
were placed in transition programs that the county und funded
for one year.
Among the beneficiaries was Karen Leutner, 22, who is mentally
retarded and has muscular dystrophy. She graduated from George
C. Marshall High School in June and, "at the last minute," was
placed in a county-funded day program at St. Coletta School in
Alexandria, said her mother, Nancy.
"Right now we have funding till June 30 . . . but after that I'm
not sure what's going to happen," Nancy Leutner said. "She's on
a waiting list for everything, like group homes, but that's just
like . . . forget it. Parents have to die for their adult
disabled child to be eligible for anything."
Sarah Temple, 22, a graduate of Centreville High School who has
moderate mental retardation, faces a similar dilemma. Funding
for her job-training program is secure for this year only. "We
did a lot of advocating to get this funding," said her mother,
Cheryl. "I guess we'll be doing it again."
No such help was available for Ted Nigh, who is not mentally
retarded and thus not eligible for Community Services Board
programs under Virginia's system. Instead, he comes under the
state's Department of Rehabilitative Services, which has not
been able to find an alternative to a nursing home for him.
Sitting in a wheelchair at the Birmingham Green residential care
center one day last week, Nigh said he stayed in high school an
extra year, but finally decided he needed to graduate. Case
workers had that entire time to develop a post-graduation plan
for him, "and they came up with nothing," he said. "That was a
really frustrating point in my life."
An avid hockey fan, Nigh said his ambition is to find a public
relations job, preferably involving sports. "I'm looking for an
employer to step up and take a chance on a person like me," he
But he said he worries that case workers' efforts so far may
amount to "a smoke screen" and that his dreams could wither at
the nursing home.
"I don't think there is a plan," he told his father at one
point. "I feel kind of duped. . . . The more days go by and you
don't hear anything, that's when you start to wonder, 'Am I
really in here for good?' "
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