Joan Vennochi

Clinging to an unraveling safety net

By Joan Vennochi
October 22, 2009

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THIS IS THE sorry state of Massachusetts 2009.

The Bay State’s most vulnerable citizens - those with physical disabilities, intellectual challenges, and autism - are sitting vigil right outside the governor’s office.

Their message: please don’t cut our funding. One more thread snipped from their safety net, and life as they know it, starts to unravel.

What happens next will reveal how many people outside their world believe them - and care.

Governor Deval Patrick met several times with the rotating band of advocates camped out in front of his office over the past two weeks. When he is unavailable, a surrogate does the honors. On Monday, about two dozen supplicants lined up in the hallway, as requested by Andrew London, a Patrick aide. As they pleaded their case, a lobbyist and a lawmaker or two stepped around them.

Raymond Plouffe tells London that until he was 42, he lived in Fernald, a residential institution for the severely mentally disabled. Now 74, Plouffe lives in Waltham, with his wife, Nancy, who also has developmental delays. They are as independent as they can be, and hope to stay that way, with assistance from Work Community Independence, a Waltham-based nonprofit, which relies on state funding.

Joseph Realbuto, of the May Institute in Mashpee, stands with a dozen young men and women with autism or brain injuries. “These are people who can never, ever be alone. Any cuts will dismantle our services,’’ he tells London.

Rhonda Lesanto’s 36-year-old sister, Heather, lives in a group home in Waltham. “We’ve seen her blossom there,’’ she tells London. “To take her back would devastate her.’’ Yet Lesanto worries that personnel cuts could undercut her sister’s safety.

“These are difficult decisions. There are no easy answers,’’ replies London. “The governor knows it’s about people, not line items. I can’t promise you much, but we’re listening.’’

The budget crunch comes at an awkward time. Patrick, who is up for reelection in 2010, expects to get a boost tomorrow, when his friend, President Obama, is scheduled to visit Massachusetts. On one hand, Patrick is telling citizens the state is “poised’’ for recovery. Yet, he also warned hat revenue could fall as much as $600 million below projections.

“There are some things we do in state government . . . that we are not going to be able to do anymore,’’ the governor said.

The Bay State’s “disability community’’ includes about 30,000 residents who rely on state funding for a variety of basic services. They range from round-the-clock care at state-run residential facilities to group homes, from employment and transportation programs to respite care and family support. Advocates hear that the Patrick administration may slice $40 million to $60 million from the state’s $1.2 billion human services budget before the end of the year. Budget cuts for the next fiscal year could lop off another 10 to 15 percent.

Those projections affect more than those with disabilities. Higher education, public health, and local aid are all on the chopping block. As the pie shrinks, everyone is fighting for a piece of what’s left.

Leo Sarkissian, executive director of The Arc of Massachusetts, an advocacy group for people with disabilities, said Patrick is listening carefully to those who show up in his office. Next week, advocates will transfer their vigil from the governor’s office to the offices of House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray.

But Sarkissian worries that the public and some lawmakers suffer from “crisis fatigue’’ or worse - a willingness to look past the weakest.

“How many are ready to redefine government? That scares me even more,’’ said Sarkissian.

People everywhere are more cynical about government and more suspicious of the effectiveness of government-funded programs. Threatened budget cuts are often viewed as scare tactics, designed to manipulate the public into accepting more taxes.

These are tough times. The recession and job loss that accompanied it threw many reasonably comfortable families into survival mode. When a family’s income plummets, it becomes harder to think about those who have less and need more.

But that’s what the Commonwealth needs to do. It needs to keep the safety net as strong as possible for the weakest. Keeping that commitment will say a lot about the state of Massachusetts.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at

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