They are contacting state legislators, threatening to leave Hamilton County and scorning the age-old Republican line that even the toughest cuts are necessary. They are the friends and relatives of patients at the TEAM Centers Inc. office in Chattanooga, and they aren’t backing down.
On July 13, the Tennessee Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities decided against allocating a $774,000 diagnostic and evaluation grant toward what one parent called a “once-in-a-lifetime” clinical program for children and adults with autism, developmental delays and other mental disabilities.
“All the kids have a routine going at TEAM,” said Kay Turner, whose 7-year-old grandson is autistic. “When you get them out of a routine, it messes up their whole system. Parents are talking about moving out of here. Our children are being left behind.”
Entirely separate from that concern is a decision by TEAM’s interim executive director to use state grant money to close the center and pay for employee severance packages.
State officials had offered a $193,000 grant to allow TEAM to fund clinical care — diagnoses, therapy and evaluations — through the end of September so families could research other options and TEAM could explore other revenue sources.
But Peter Charman, who declined to comment for this story, told the Chattanooga Times Free Press last week he would use the money to end TEAM operations.
When the newspaper notified the state about Charman’s plans, the state put a hold on the grant. Officials haven’t announced a plan beyond that.
“It’s fair to ask — are the dollars being used for what the grant was intended for?” state Sen. Bo Watson said, adding that he was speaking generally since he did not know the specifics of the TEAM grant.
The main concern among families is what they’ll do next. More than 230 people, including at least one state legislator, are wondering the same thing on a Facebook group that quickly makes its intentions known with a blunt title: “KEEP TEAM CENTER OPEN.”
“I hope for the sake of the children that we can have this decision rescinded,” Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, wrote on the group’s page. “This will be disastrous.”
Watson, who remembered “five emails and five or six phone calls” from angry parents, said he’s meeting Tennessee Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disorders Commissioner James Henry today “to discuss the issue and have a full understanding of the status.”
He said he didn’t know whether a grant could be awarded after it was denied.
“That’s a question I’ll ask at the meeting,” he said.
Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, who’s working to keep the TEAM program going, said a legislative approach may be futile since the department — not lawmakers — unilaterally decided to divert the grant money away from TEAM.
“I’m disappointed that the [department] has decided to refuse this grant without any consultation from the legislative body or the local delegation,” he said. “To cut such a grant after a long history of [awarding it] seems to fly in the face of a good, open discussion about where our resources are best used.
“I plan on maintaining contact with the department, especially now that I’ve heard about the impact it will have on families.”
Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga, said “everybody wants to reduce spending, but nobody wants it to start with ‘me.’”
“I know there’s a need for [mental health services],” he said. “I’m sure we’ll find a way to come back and fix it, even if it may not be at the level [TEAM] is doing right now.”
Supporters are urging others to advocate for the nonprofit agency.
April Eidson, a member of the Facebook group, provided email addresses and telephone numbers of representatives at all levels of government.
“Keep the political lobby up,” Eidson said. “Goal is to keep the TEAM Center open. Telephone and email today.”