JEFFERSON CITY — More than 100 Missouri parents and their children filled the Capitol on Wednesday to protest the end of a program designed to help children with special needs.
Supporters of First Steps presented a petition with more than 28,000 signatures to Gov. Matt Blunt’s office in an effort to spare the program from budget cuts. First Steps provides physical, occupational and speech therapy to children younger than 3 who have disabilities.
Blunt on Wednesday defended his plan to eliminate the program.
“I have called for a change in the program so that private insurance and not Missouri taxpayers pick up the bill whenever possible,” he said.
Sen. Pat Dougherty, D-St. Louis, said the program allows children a better chance to enter and succeed in public school systems.
“The only purpose is to provide early intervention services to reduce the severity of the disability,” he said.
First Steps served 8,041 children last year at an estimated cost of $27.2 million. The money comes from the federal government, Medicaid and general state revenue.
Concerned families also presented their cases to the House Education Appropriations Committee.
Diane Kodelja of Oakville testified while holding 21-month-old daughter, Veronica, who suffers from congenital hydrocephalus. The condition causes brain damage that impairs Veronica’s motor skills. Kodelja spends more than 15 hours a month in therapy with Veronica, most of which is spent at First Steps.
“Every single one of those therapists tells me what’s going on with her,” Kodelja said. “Without First Steps I would be so lost.”
Blunt said he hopes to develop an effective replacement for First Steps.
“Many people believe that the First Steps Program does not deliver services as effectively as it could,” said Blunt. “I have directed my staff to determine how we can best craft a new program that ensures the same level of services are being provided to the children.”
First Steps advocates, however, have their doubts. Malinda Terreri said the program saved her son’s life.
“Hearing this news was like falling back into the black hole when you first find out that your child has special needs,” said Terreri, “You just want your child to be the best he can be.”