By Kim Walter
Local parents have grabbed the attention of state officials in a fight to keep the Child Development Center in Winchester open.
Jack Starry of Boyce created a petition about a month ago to keep the clinic open. His son, who has autism, was able to receive screening services at the facility last summer.
Because the clinic, which provides testing and evaluations for children with disabilities, was close to home, Starry didn't have to take time off work to be a part of the process. After three visits, which spanned over about three months, Starry said the family got the results they needed, and his son was able to get appropriate services and help at school.
The Virginia Department of Health has decided to close a number of the small clinics throughout the state due to decreasing funds. For the families served by the Winchester facility, which includes those in the city, as well as Frederick, Clarke, Warren and Shenandoah counties, they will now have to travel to Harrisonburg for the tests -- but only after they move to the top of a waiting list.
Starry questioned the state's decision to close such local clinics in a letter sent in late May.
The response, which came from Dr. Lauri Kalanges, acting director of the Office of Family Health Services, justified the closings.
"We found that our [private] contractors were seeing significantly more children, when compared with the local health department Child Development Evaluation model," the response states. "As we examined the relative productivity of the different models, we determined that the program goals of serving as many children as possible and identifying children with developmental delays as young as possible would be best served by transitioning to a contractor-based model."
Starry insists that there is no way the new approach will benefit more children. He said one family was supposed to have an appointment in Winchester, but since the services have stopped, they have to wait at least another month to get on the waiting list. He said after that, they could be waiting for an appointment for another year and a half.
"But that's not the only problem," Starry said Monday afternoon. "These are working parents who will have to take vacation days. And if you think traveling with a child who is prone to tantrums and break downs is a vacation ... well you are not right."
Starry said he is also concerned that by the time the children make it to Harrisonburg, they will be so frustrated from the car ride that the testing might not be as productive as it should.
The petition that Starry started now has just under 7,000 signatures.
Last week, Starry met with Charles Devine, director of the Lord Fairfax Health District, to discuss the issue. Sidnee Dallas, director of the state's Children with Special Health Care Needs Program, also joined them over the phone.
"She listened," Starry said. "It sounds like she is open to the idea of brainstorming ways to keep these services local. That's the whole point, really, because I'm worried that if the services aren't readily available, people aren't going to pursue them at all."
Starry was told that the conversation and ideas would be forwarded to Cynthia Romero, state health commissioner.
While his petition gains momentum, Starry also has managed to gain support from a state lawmaker.
Sen. Jill Vogel, R-27, said she wants to be involved in any discussions or meetings on the topic from here on out. She said she's reaching out to officials in Richmond and hopes to hear back soon.
She, like Starry, feels the state's attempt to consolidate services with hopes of saving money and being just as productive is a "backwards" way of doing things.
"By keeping the CDC local, and serving all these families, the state can only save money later on, because then these children are getting the early intervention and resources they need," she said Monday afternoon. "These kids have so much to offer, and the services that the local clinic offers gets them a better chance at being productive citizens."
Vogel is no stranger to the basic topic, as she recently worked on legislation dealing with autism several months ago. She said that process made her realize just how many families in the area needed and appreciated the clinic in Winchester.
"It's shocking the number of families that this impacts," she said. "The whole situation is heartbreaking, because the clinic in Harrisonburg is already overburdened."
Vogel also recognizes that such trips for families of those with special needs would be a "disruption," and most likely would be "costly."
"I will do anything I can to keep the services local. I like where the CDC is now, but I'm open to other options that will at least keep these families from traveling," she said. "This is where it all starts for these kids, so to make them wait to get the help they need ... it's just impractical."
Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or email@example.com