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Families struggle after cuts for disabled

By Rachel Streitfeld
Karson Brewster, 4, suffers from a rare chromosomal defect. Her mother, Michelle, quit her job to take care of the child.
Karson Brewster, 4, suffers from a rare chromosomal defect. Her mother, Michelle, quit her job to take care of the child.
  • Maryland has cut $30 million from Developmental Disabilities Administration
  • Parents needing help with disabled kids implore lawmakers to restore funding
  • Official says budget shortfall left governor with no easy choices
  • States' budget troubles affect most vulnerable across nation, analyst says

Washington (CNN) -- While many children her age are learning to print their letters, Karson Brewster is struggling to master a baby's belly crawl.

The curly-haired 4-year-old with wire-rimmed glasses is as small as a toddler, and she cannot speak or sit up by herself. Karson suffers from a rare chromosomal defect called distal 18q-, which can cause mental retardation and developmental delays.

She often suffers complications from the disease, and she visits one of her 22 doctors two to three times a week.

Without the help of family and financial aid from the state of Maryland to cover medical expenses, Karson's mother, Michelle, said her family probably would be homeless.

Video: Impact of state budget cuts

But now state budget cuts mean most of that funding -- which the Maryland Developmental Disabilities Administration provides -- has dried up. Instead of receiving $2,500 from the DDA, this year the Brewsters will have to make do with $300.

Michelle Brewster, who quit her job in 2006 to care for her daughter, said she doesn't know how she'll afford the yearly $1,000 required for Karson's prescription expenses, diapers and other medical equipment that insurance does not cover.

"How are we going to help her get the quality of life that she needs?" she asked. "And what does that mean for us? If we get a bill, do we pay that bill, or do we help our daughter?"

The anguish in Brewster's voice has played out at town halls across the state, where the parents of disabled children have implored legislators to restore the funding.

Legislators blame the recession, which exacerbated budget shortfalls in states across the country. Maryland was no exception. The state was facing a staggering $733 million shortfall in 2010 before Gov. Martin O'Malley made a series of cuts this summer, including $30 million from the DDA.

Catherine Raggio, secretary of Maryland's Department of Disabilities, said the governor had hoped to preserve all the agency's funding but the crippling shortfalls didn't leave him any easy choices.

Raggio said for the time being she doesn't have much good news to give to families of disabled children.

"I don't have anything really good to say to them that's going to make them happy," Raggio said. "I tell the truth about the way the budget situation is and that the governor cares very much about their situation ... and just what he's facing when it comes time to balance the budget."

Susan Urahn, an analyst from the Pew Center on the States, said the effects of budget shortfalls are not going away any time soon.

"As the states face increasingly severe budget troubles, the public is definitely going to feel it," Urahn said. "They'll pay more taxes; they'll pay higher fees. The direct services that the state provides, whether it's getting your driver's license, getting an unemployment check, going to traffic court, it's going to take a lot longer."

Urahn said poor and vulnerable populations often suffer a greater impact during times of fiscal crisis when states make cuts to such social services as health insurance, unemployment and education.

In the meantime, Brewster and other parents will keep pushing their representatives to come up with the money some other way.

"They [children] didn't ask to be disabled," Brewster said. "We're not asking for handouts. We're just asking for a little bit of help. That's it."