In 2014, the legislature passed a bill which provides parents of children with developmental disabilities with the right to challenge the placement that the state deems appropriate for their child after he or she turns 21.  

On the young person’s 21st birthday, emergency funding kicks in, and parents are granted the due process right to challenge whether the placement that the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD) has made is appropriate or not.

But recently, in what critics have called a cost-cutting measure, OPWDD has started transferring these young adults before they are entitled to emergency funding, leaving parents and their children with no funding, and without recourse.

Capital Tonight spoke with Michele Atkinson, a Suffolk County resident and mother of 21-year-old Joseph who battles autism, ADHD, OCD and severe anxiety that can cause him to become violent toward others. 

In a newspaper column, Atkinson wrote of her son, “Joseph had cycled through 18 different schools before finding a facility in Massachusetts where, at long last, he is thriving.”

The Judge Rotenberg Educational Center (JRC) in Massachusetts has been a blessing to the Atkinson family, Michele told Capital Tonight.  

“Joseph today is down to one very low dose medication, and has lost excess weight related to his former treatment plan. He’s learning to manage his violent impulses and interact with others socially. Despite all the odds, Joseph is safe, happy and doing well,” Michele Atkinson explained. “He recently put on a tuxedo and attended prom and sat through his entire, hour-long graduation ceremony. We celebrated at home with 15 guests, and Joseph ate dinner with everyone.”

Days before Joseph’s 21st birthday, OPWDD offered a new placement at Sunmount in Tupper Lake. After reviewing the facility on-line, the Atkinson family declined the placement. Several days later, OPWDD sent a letter to the family telling them that Joseph’s state funding would be cut off. 

The Albany Times Union published multiple stories on the ordeal that the Atkinson’s and others have faced. The stories caught the eye of multiple lawmakers who spoke with the Hochul administration about the situation. In a change, OPWDD has put this policy on hold which is great news for Joseph Atkinson.

“He actually still at JRC. OPWDD has granted a six month freeze on transfers and has provided emergency funding,” Michele Atkinson told Capital Tonight. “So, he is still there right now.”

Capital Tonight reached out to OPWDD to get its take on the policy. Here is a statement the agency sent to us:

“While OPWDD cannot comment on any specific case due to strict privacy laws, we can tell you that student placements in out-of-state residential school programs such as the Judge Rotenberg Center in Massachusetts are arranged and funded by the local school district, not OPWDD,” Jennifer O’Sullivan, OPWDD Director of Communications sent in an email.  “Once a student completes their education at the school (at the end of the school year in which the student reaches the age of 21), OPWDD works closely with each student and their family to identify an appropriate in-state placement that will meet their specific needs to ensure that the student can return to NYS, their official place of residency, to receive appropriate adult services.”

But unless the legislature makes a permanent change preventing OPWDD from re-instituting this policy, Joseph’s ordeal may not be over. 

If there is no placement available in New York state at the time of the student’s graduation, OPWDD has limited authority, on an emergency basis, to fund continued placement at the individual’s school, but only until an appropriate adult placement within the state is available. 

Should the student and their family reject the options provided to them in New York state and choose to continue receiving their adult developmental disability services in a different state long-term, they would likely need to establish residency and work with the agency that provides developmental disability services within that state.