Children with special needs and their families were separated for months. This bill would reunite them.

The Louisiana Legislature on Thursday gave final approval to a bill that revamps state policies after the families of special needs children were unable to see their children for months because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The measure, House Bill 95, cleared its final hurdle when the House went along with minor Senate changes and approved the bill 91-0.

Earlier in the day the Senate backed it 36-0.

Freshman state Rep. Rhonda Butler, R-Ville Platte, sponsor of the bill, won heavy support for her first proposal considered by the Legislature after detailing to lawmakers how she went nearly four months without seeing her son, Derek.

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She said her son so distraught by the separation that he rubbed off the hair on both sides of his head.

Others said their children lost 10-15 pounds during the separation from their families.

The legislation spells out rules for the Louisiana Department of Health with the aim of allowing families to visit their children in group homes and other sites.

More than 3,500 children and adults live in nearly 500 of the sites statewide with intellectual disabilities, cerebral palsy and other ailments that require 24-hour treatment.

Under the bill, state officials can require that family members undergo tests for COVID-19 before the visits and can require visitors to wear the same personal protective equipment as staff members who work at the sites. The visits cannot be limited to less than two hours.

Butler said officials of the Louisiana Department of Health were agreeable to the changes.

“LDH came to the table and worked with us,” she said.

Ashley Bieber, who lives in the Evangeline Parish village of Pine Prairie, was one of the parents denied access to her daughter Avery Stewart, who is quadriplegic, legally blind and non-verbal.

She attended Central Louisiana Supports and Services Center in Alexandria.

“It was a big blow for us when all of a sudden on March 12 we got an email from the school saying we are on immediate lockdown, no one can come to visit, no one can go home because of the quarantine mandate,” Bieber recalled.

“We had no warning,” she said. “Mentally and emotionally, it was just torture.”

“These are kids who expect their families and who need to be loved and touched and to know that they are valued,” Bieber said.

“And they were isolated in their dormitories. They weren’t in school. They weren’t in class.”

Bieber said her family went six months and 13 days without seeing their daughter in person before her and her husband decided to bring her home on Oct. 1.

Sen. Beth Mizell, R-Franklinton, who handled the bill on the Senate floor, urged senators to back the measure by noting that Butler was one of the parents affected by the sudden lockdown.

In an interview, Butler said her son Derek, 31, is her only child.

He lives at St. Mary’s Residential Training Center near Alexandria, which cares for children and adults with severe developmental disabilities.

Butler, Bieber and others praised the work of caretakers during the lockdown.

“And I can tell you those caretakers did a fabulous job even though they kept telling me ‘Miss Rhonda, he walks to the door, he lays his head on the door, he is at the window crying.”’

“It is hard to hear that as a mother,” Butler said. “We couldn’t make them understand.”                  

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