The closure would be a blow to many families who have come to rely on Early Foundations Family Outreach to help children with autism learn crucial skills early in life.
For eight years, Early Foundations and Project Peak, part of the Autism Center at the University of Oklahoma’s Child Study Center, has received $600,000 in annual funding from the Oklahoma State Department of Education/Special Education Services.
In 2013, that funding was cut due to a decrease in federal dollars coming to the department of education due to the sequester. The cuts were a surprise to the leaders of the program, including the Children’s Hospital Foundation, a 501(c)3 that has provided funding for the four Early Foundations centers in Oklahoma.
“I didn’t know we were dependent on federal funding,” said Kathy McCracken, the foundation’s executive director. “My understating was that we had a $600,000 contract with the state.”
Tricia Pemberton, spokeswoman for the department of education, said Early Foundations was not singled out when the department realized it would receive significantly fewer federal dollars.
She said that, as a result of the sequester, the agency adopted a policy to stop automatically renewing solesource contracts. A request was prepared to try to find a party to take over that area of autism funding.
“Initially, we rolled all autism services into an RFP (request for proposal) and put that out for bid so that those services would continue, but we didn’t get a successful bidder,” she said.
The agency developed plans to offer continued support and services to autistic families, but those plans will not keep Early Foundations open.
“We want to try to get the most services out to students that we possibly can,” Pemberton said.
Michi Medley is upset that the centers will close for lack of funding. Her son, Rob, now almost 8 years old, has autism and was one of the first Early Foundations pupils. Because of his training there, he has been able to enter a regular school and integrate with students, despite being nonverbal.
“He would not be where he is today if not for Early Foundations,” Medley said. Early Foundations has about 75 autistic students and 75 students without autism who learn side by side in centers in Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Norman and Mustang. It also provides training for teachers statewide, as well as support for families.
“We had a support system to answer all of our questions,” Medley said. “It breaks my heart to hear that they might close. We need more of them.”
With the clock ticking toward a June closure, McCracken said she is not sure what the future will hold for Early Foundations.
“What we really need are more of them, and now, all of a sudden, we are going to close them all,” she said. “We’re in a crisis situation if we don’t find $600,000.”
Studies show that there is a definite need to help children like Rob.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network reports about one in every 88 children has an autism spectrum disorder.
McCracken said that with more children being diagnosed with autism, education and training must begin early in their lives.
“There has been enough research that early intervention is key,” she said.