Missouri Lawmakers Play Tug-of-War with First Steps Funding


KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Just a few months shy of her third birthday, Sienna Diffenderfer has a lot of help in coping with cerebral palsy, epilepsy and visual impairment.

Staff members at the Children’s Center for the Visually Impaired (CCVI), at 3101 Main St., are helping the Belton, Mo., toddler with physical therapy and development of a variety of skills, including speaking and eating.

The Diffenderfer household pays $30 a month for the services, which covers a fraction of the actual costs.

Missouri’s First Steps program helps subsidize those services, covering about 15 percent of CCVI’s $3.4 million annual budget. Each year across the state, First Steps serves about 10,000 developmentally disabled children up to age 3.

The program has become a flashpoint as this year’s session of the Missouri General Assembly draws to a close this week. At issue is the $20 million in general revenue funding that Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, has proposed for the program in next year’s budget.

“It is definitely sad it has to turn to that,” said Lori Diffenderfer, Sienna’s mother.

Diffenderfer was among those who gathered at the children’s center on Tuesday to support Nixon who made an appearance there to make his case for First Steps funding.

The political battle over First Steps funding arose during a larger debate over tax policy.

Nixon has proposed increasing funding for First Steps by $1.5 million next year. But, Republicans in the General Assembly have tied First Steps’ funding to elimination of a housing tax credit for low-income seniors and disabled residents.

Not long after his appearance in Kansas City, Nixon vetoed a measure that would have eliminated the tax credit.

With the legislative session scheduled to end Friday, it appears much of the last minute jockeying over First Steps and the tax credit will take place in the Missouri Senate.

Similar controversy over First Steps’ funding in 2005, led to enactment of legislation requiring some families to share in the cost of the program. Families with incomes of 200 percent of federal poverty guidelines and up were required to pay a monthly participation fee ranging from $5 to $100.

“The real testament to the effectiveness of First Steps isn’t how children do when they are in the program. It is how they do after they transition out of it,” Nixon said. “By giving families the tools to help their children thrive, these temporary services have a lasting impact that reduces the need for more costly intervention later on.”

Some of those savings are realized once the children are in school and require fewer special education services, said Mary Lynne Dolembo, executive director of the children’s center.

She said every dollar invested in early intervention programs such as First Steps can result in up to $17 in savings in future special education costs.

The Children’s Center for the Visually Impaired serves up to 375 children each year. Its service area is about a 100-mile radius of Kansas City on both sides of the state line.

The ages of the children served at the center range from birth to 8 years old, Dolembo said.

Most are from poor families and every client at the center receives some sort of financial assistance, Dolembo said.

The agency covers about two-thirds of its budget with fund raising, but the First Steps’ dollars were important to the agency, she said.

Without First Steps, Lori Diffenderfer said, life would be a lot more frustrating for Sienna and the rest of the family. Sienna has a twin sister who is developing normally, the mother said.

Finding the various therapists needed to help Sienna and paying the full cost of those services would be difficult for the family, she said.

“We even have a decent income,” Diffenderfer said, “but it would still be tough.”

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