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Ill. Suit Tests Commitment to Infants With Disabilities

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At least three-quarters of the infants and toddlers with disabilities in Illinois are not receiving early-intervention services, according to a class action filed this month on behalf of four families.

In what is likely the first case of its kind, the suit, which names the state and the Illinois board of education, seeks to make Illinois comply with the mandate that infants and toddlers with disabilities are entitled to services such as therapy and counseling.

Passed by Congress in 1986, Part H of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires that states that receive funds to develop early-intervention programs must provide such services to all eligible children in the fifth year of funding.

Illinois, whose fifth year of funding began on Dec. 2, 1992, has certified to the U.S. Education Department that it is providing such services, the suit says. However, only 9,000 of the total number of children who should be getting the services--a figure that has been put as low as 35,000 and as high as 56,000--are receiving help, the suit charges.

A spokesman for the state board of education said last week that the board's legal advisers were still looking at the suit and had no comment on the case.

The Long Wait

Some special-education experts say insuring that all children receive early-intervention services could become more of an issue nationwide now that most states are reaching their fifth year of funding.

Currently, lawyers for the families filing suit say, when Illinois parents find out that their children need special services beginning at birth, they usually are put on a waiting list. In some cases, doctors have stopped referring children for state services, said Karen Berman, the lawyer who brought the case.

"Half the time when they refer them, [the families] wait six months to a year,'' she said.

Children with conditions such as cerebral palsy, deafness, and Down's syndrome can benefit from receiving early-intervention services, including physical and speech therapy and different kinds of family counseling, at a young age, advocates say.

The state passed legislation in 1991 that would provide these services, but only "as appropriated funds become available,'' a condition that Ms. Berman says represents a breach in the federal law.

Illinois has received more than $24 million in federal funds since 1987, the suit says. One estimate puts the state's cost for fully funding its program at up to $260 million.

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