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Friend in Richmond

Coalition for Mentally Disabled Citizens breakfast recognizes Dillard, shares concerns.

For Herk Latimer, co-chair of the Coalition for Mentally Disabled Citizens, services for the mentally disabled are not one-size-fits-all. Latimer credits his own daughter, born with mental retardation, for getting him involved in advocacy. He has seen first-hand the range of services available, he said, from institutions such as the Northern Virginia Training Center to sheltered workshops to independent living.

But all these services have one thing in common, said Latimer: they all demand attention from state legislators.

For 25 years, the coalition has addressed this issue with its Legislative Breakfast, at which coalition members gather with local lawmakers to present their concerns. On Friday, Dec. 2, at the "Make Waves Virginia" breakfast, the coalition presented a statement calling for legislation in support of more facilities, enhanced funding and better training and pay for direct service workers. Local delegates, state senators and county officials, such as Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites-Davis (R-34), Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chair Gerry Connolly (D-At-large), and former Del. Jim Dillard (R-41), attended the breakfast.

"We have a really important need for services," said Supervisor Cathy Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill). "Fairfax County puts in a lot of local dollars for the many services addressed here." But the services are not as extensive as the need, she said.

Trudy Harsh, a member of the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board and founder of the Brain Foundation, agreed, describing a group home with a capacity of around 30 people, a yearly turnover of two, and a waiting list of 99.

Along with facilities, service workers are one of the greatest needs today, said American Network of Community Options and Resources (ANCOR) head Renee Pietrangelo. Demand for these direct service workers, who work directly with mentally disabled citizens, is expected to increase by 40 percent in the next five years.

FALLING SALARIES are keeping the direct service work force low, said Pietrangelo. The hourly wage for these workers has only increased by $1.20 in the last 10 years, she said.

"It seems to me that our values' scale needs a little adjusting," she said. "We each have to move beyond self-interest in the form of continual cuts and the rationing of human resources."

Latimer has seen first-hand the need to attract and retain service workers. Latimer's daughter lives in a group home, and the high turnover rate of service workers puts a strain on her emotional well-being, he said.

"For each [caretaker], my daughter develops a form of trust and love for them," he said. But the caretakers do not stay at the job for long, he said, usually moving on to better-paying positions.

"We are trying to do all we can to maintain staff," he said. "It bothers me a lot. That’s why I keep working, because it’s payback for what my daughter’s received."

The coalition also awarded Harsh and Dillard for service on behalf of the mentally disabled.

"Jim Dillard has always taken a great deal of personal interest," said Latimer. "He’s become a real favorite of our advocacy groups."

Dillard, a former educator and 32-year delegate who retired from the General Assembly in September to sit on the Board of Visitors at the College of William & Mary, received the Distinguished Leadership Award from the coalition. During for his time in the General Assembly, Dillard helped develop program curricula to help combat sexual abuse, said coalition co-chair Charles Fletcher.

"In the last session of the legislature, Jim Dillard played an important role in our budget being passed," said Fletcher. The budget resulted in funding for mental disabilities services that would not have existed otherwise, he said.

Events such as the Legislative Breakfast are crucial for allowing delegates to see and respond to citizen concerns, said Dillard.

"I am very honored to receive this," he said. "What I’ve tried to tell people I work with is to do the very kind of thing they have done, assigning people to talk to their legislators." Lawmakers will never know what people want unless they tell them, he said.

"That is the most effective way, because legislators are in fact ignorant," said Dillard. "By ignorant I mean simply a lack of knowledge, and advocacy provides that kind of knowledge to us."

Dillard also emphasized the coalition’s stated need for funds.

"The main thing I’ve tried to do is increase funding," said Dillard. Homes and programs for the mentally disabled often have long waiting lists, he said. As the baby boomer population ages, parents of citizens with mental disabilities find they are no longer able to take care of their children, said Dillard, and so these facilities will be in even higher demand.

"One of the most important struggles we have as legislators is finding people to take care of these [people's] children," said Dillard.