I rarely use words like “crisis” when talking about California’s regional center system of community care, which provides vital services and supports to more than 360,000 people with developmental disabilities – more than 23,000 of them in Orange County. Throughout my career, I’ve been proud of how our service providers, advocates and professionals have not just coped but innovated in the face of budget crises and chronic underfunding by the State of California.

What we’re facing now is different.

Like small businesses throughout the economy, the service providers that operate the group homes where adults with developmental disabilities live, the day programs that help them get jobs and learn skills for independence, and the early intervention programs that help youngsters narrow the developmental gap are struggling to keep their doors open as direct care workers leave to take better-paying jobs.

But while other small business owners can make a choice to raise wages and pass those costs on to their customers, our service providers’ rates are set by the State of California. Sadly, the rates in the fiscal year 2022-2023 budget proposed by Governor Newsom don’t even come close to the level the State’s own rate study recommended as baselines three years ago, in 2019. 

Years before skyrocketing inflation. Years before COVID caused many workers to drop out of the workforce. Years before employers like Target began paying new workers up to $24 per hour and Walmart began offering starting wages of up to $17 per hour.

At a time when the State’s finances are solid and much-needed investments to shore up our struggling system are finally a realistic possibility, the proposed state budget prioritizes everything except our children and adults with developmental disabilities: autism, cerebral palsy, intellectual disabilities, and epilepsy.

It should be a scandal. These are not luxuries. These are not nice-to-haves. They are absolutely critical for society’s most vulnerable citizens to live safely and with dignity in our community. 

When, for example, a day program lacks staff to provide normal in-person services, it has a cascading effect on the individual’s circle of support and, in turn, puts pressure on other services such as crisis service providers, who are also depleted by labor shortages. As of this writing, just 19% of day programs Regional Center of Orange County works with are back to a relatively normal day schedule. The situation is similar across the state, and our community is speaking with one voice to send a clear and forceful message to California’s elected leaders: without direct care workers, there are no services for people with developmental disabilities.

In addition to fully funding the reimbursement rates proposed in 2019, California should deliver immediate emergency funding to shore-up the developmental services system. It has been done before, when Republicans and Democrats came together in 2016 to approve much-needed, targeted service provider rate increases. Today’s direct care crisis demands equally strong and decisive action.

Larry Landauer is Executive Director of Regional Center of Orange County (RCOC), www.rcocdd.com. RCOC is one of 21 private, non-profit organizations contracted by the State of California’s Department of Developmental Services to coordinate lifelong service and supports for individuals with developmental disabilities and their families. The regional center is the first stop for those seeking to obtain local services and supports to help them live safely and with dignity in the community. Currently, RCOC serves 23,098 Orange County residents with autism, epilepsy, cerebral palsy, and intellectual disabilities.

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