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'Special needs' appeals filed after program cuts

Magdalena Diaz, 33, of Brentwood is photographed with

Magdalena Diaz, 33, of Brentwood is photographed with her son Christian, 2, inside her home. Credit: Steven Sunshine

A growing number of parents with special-needs children who were cut from Suffolk County's child care program are seeking reinstatement, arguing that they were not properly informed of eligibility rules that could have kept their children in the program.

State budget cuts and increased demand for the program driven by the sluggish economy forced the county Department of Social Services to drop more than 2,000 children last year from the program, which funds a portion of child care costs for low-income working parents.

Forty-four parents have filed "special needs" appeals with the department, according to county figures, since a federal court ruling in July that required the county to disclose in termination letters that there is a higher income threshold for families with special needs children. Before the ruling, no appeals had been filed. Only seven of the appeals have been approved, according to county figures.

Magdalena Diaz of Brentwood, whose daughter was diagnosed with a learning disability, said the county rejected her application even though she provided documentation from her child's school district stating she requires specialized attention. She is appealing with the help of the Empire Justice Center. The Central Islip-based nonprofit filed the federal suit on behalf of parents who said Suffolk's initial termination letter did not adequately explain why families were being dropped.

"You have the school saying that she has a learning disability -- what more proof do they need?" Diaz said. Her weekly take-home pay of $314 from a medical packaging plant is not enough to cover the full cost of day care for her four children, Diaz said.

Currently, a family's income cannot exceed the federal poverty line, but parents of children with disabilities can earn double that and remain eligible for child care aid. A family of four with a special-needs child can earn up to $47,100 a year, compared with $23,550 for other families.

"Once the second round of notices went out parents became more aware," said Linda Hassburg, senior attorney for the Empire Justice Center.

Acting Suffolk Social Services Commissioner John O'Neill said the department relies on documentation from doctors, psychologists and other professionals to determine whether a child is autistic or has learning disabilities or other conditions that would qualify them for child care subsidies.

The appeals come as Suffolk continues to struggle to fund the program, which has about 4,100 children. Since 2009, the state has cut Suffolk's funding for the program by more than $3 million, and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's proposed 2013 budget calls for no increases to the $29.2 million Suffolk received in 2012. Before three rounds of cuts last year, 5,981 children took part in the program.

In Nassau County, with 4,900 children enrolled in the subsidized child care program, all families with incomes up to double the federal poverty level are eligible, said Department of Social Services spokeswoman Karen Garber.

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