Wait 10 years for treatment? Texas kids don’t deserve this.

They don’t give awards for good parents. Just rewarding moments, worth their weight in Olympic gold.

Such moments take away, if only for a short time, all worries and efforts.

For mother-of-four Sheletta Brundidge, that sweet release comes when her home is filled with happy chatter at the end of a busy day. Some of us may take this for granted, but it may as well be a miracle for Brundidge, who once faced a dismal house of silence as several of her children struggling with autism couldn’t find the words, or sometimes in some other way, to tell him that they were sad, or happy, or hurt, or delighted.

So how did the family move from place to place? Short answer: leaving Texas, the state where Brundidge grew up and hoped to raise his children near a supportive family network.

Leaving seemed the only choice after applying for public services for one of her children and being told she would have to wait at least 10 years to get help for the three children, two diagnosed with autism and another showing signs.

Brundidge and her family are among countless Texas families who have been forced to leave in order to obtain the disability services they need to thrive. A Houston Chronicle survey of years-long waiting lists for these essential services, Medicaid waiver programs funded by a combination of state and federal funds, estimated that there were 200,000 Texans waiting for care.

Brundidge faced a painful but ultimately clear choice: to find a state that could actually help her children.

In Minnesota, his family has flourished in the six years since his departure from Texas. They had access to speech therapy, occupational therapy and behavioral therapy. They got special locks and a fence to make sure the children were safe from wandering and Brundidge was able to stay home to give her children attention and care. “She was even able to get respite care, which provides short-term relief to caregivers,” according to Chronicle reporter Alex Stuckey.

Today, her children play together, read, write, and two of them have even left the services after so much progress. “Their paperwork,” writes Stuckey, “now reads ‘a history of autism’.”

It’s scary to wonder where they would be if they had stayed. It’s even scarier to realize that we Texans live and pay taxes in a state that turns its back on vulnerable children – a state where politicians wave the “pro-life” flag when it comes to ‘prohibit abortion but fail to prioritize the needs of living and breathing disabled children who desperately need help obtaining health care services they otherwise could not afford.

These services are not simply alms, as some might claim. They are tools to help children fulfill their potential and hopefully one day become productive citizens contributing to their communities and the economy.

Apart from the obvious pragmatic reasons that any state should care for and invest in its youth, what about the moral obligation to help vulnerable children and others in need? Texas lawmakers who like to brag about their Christian faith when it’s politically expedient need to think about what exactly Jesus meant when he encouraged taking care of the “least of them.” Hint: He didn’t mean they were the least important.

Multi-year waiting lists aren’t new, though the state didn’t begin reporting on them until 2015. The survey even found that some people had been waiting for more than 20 years. After devastating cuts in 2011, the state pumped some $77 million back into the system to deal with waiting lists last year. Yet, as of March this year, the waiting list numbered approximately “170,000 people waiting for a Medicaid waiver and 18,300 people waiting for safety net services,” according to the Chronicle report.

Meanwhile, in Minnesota: The average wait time for funding approval is 94 days, and in March there were only 93 people waiting for care.

In Texas, a committee tasked with making recommendations to the Legislature and the state Department of Health and Human Services stressed the need to fully fund these services in order to eliminate the backlog of families. In July, he approved a recommendation asking the state to eliminate the current backlog by the end of August — 2033 — and not exceed 10-year wait times in the future.

Not exceed 10 years? That’s the point ? It’s the same ten years that Brundidge knew she didn’t have.

Judith Ursitti, another parent interviewed for the Chronicle survey, faced a similar choice when her 2-year-old son was diagnosed with autism. She was told she would have to wait 15 years to access special Medicaid waiver services recommended by other in-the-know parents. What would a 15-year wait mean for a young child? She decided not to find out, moving away from the state her family had called home for six generations, to New Jersey.

“It doesn’t matter where you live, it’s America,” Ursitti told Stuckey. “But when you think about having to wait 10 to 15 years to get services, it’s just incomprehensible. But somehow, somewhere, someone decided it was okay.

It’s not acceptable. It’s time for conscientious Texans — and there are still plenty of us — to say so.

Texas, with our swagger and wide open spaces, is the land of opportunity, isn’t it? A place of high ideals and great possibilities for anyone willing to work hard and take risks.

That’s no longer the feeling in Austin when the Republican-controlled legislature meets. What a small vision, and what an exploitation: balancing the budget on the backs of children with disabilities while throwing billions into a frontier re-election campaign for Governor Greg Abbott.

Sometimes it feels like the people running this state are going downright Darwinian: only the fittest will survive here.

Meanwhile, dedicated parents who love their children and have the knowledge and wherewithal to find help in another state will. They will leave.

We will lose amazing moms and responsible citizens like Brundidge, who wrote a children’s book about her daughter’s experience and after the freezing winter of 2021 sent hundreds of carbon monoxide detectors back to Texas.

We will also lose the remaining children who have no means of overcoming obstacles and barriers without adequate care.

The Brundidge children’s journey – from silence to celebration – proves what so many people know: what disability means depends in large part on how society treats it. They weren’t suddenly different kids in Minnesota. They were simply treated differently – valued differently – given the chances they needed to thrive.

Without that opportunity here in Texas, a diagnosis of intellectual or developmental disability might as well be a prison sentence. No child deserves this. And no Texan deserves to have this done on our behalf. Write to your representatives and tell them to put these children first and spend some of their $27 billion surplus to fund services and eliminate waiting lists.

About Antoine L. Cassell

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