A conflicted Rock County Human Services Board voted unanimously Wednesday to switch vendors for its state-mandated Birth to 3 Program as families concerned about the change watched in the audience.

Transition planning to shift the county provider from CESA 2 to United Cerebral Palsy of Dane County will begin immediately, although the change is not expected to happen until 2020, Rock County Human Services Director Kate Luster said.

The Birth to 3 Program serves babies and toddlers who have developmental delays or disabilities.

County officials sympathized with parents who worried that kids’ progress would stall or reverse if they have to work with new therapists and other staff. But messy contract negotiations with CESA 2 pushed the county to make a change, officials said.

Wednesday’s meeting took place in the Rock County Health Care Center’s auditorium to accommodate a larger crowd. The auditorium was packed with several dozen people, some of them families who brought kids that once participated in Birth to 3.

More than 20 people spoke. Most told the county to stick with CESA 2, which has been the program vendor for 39 years, and shared success stories of children who had completed the program.

Heather Darnell, a parent of a boy in Birth to 3, said changing providers would force kids to restart relationships with new therapists and possibly lead to regression.

Carter Fugate was born with significant hearing loss and qualified for the program as a baby. He will be a high school sophomore this fall and credited CESA 2 with helping him not fall behind at an early age.

Dave Godek, a foster parent, said many of his foster children have needed Birth to 3 evaluations. One 7-month-old boy came to him malnourished and could barely move. Now the boy is a healthy 6-year-old who has been reunited with his family.

Godek said he was terrified to think where that boy would be without CESA 2. It makes no sense to change a program that was so successful, he said.

Many who opposed the change feared that services would be cut in half. Luster said that’s not true. She said the notion that annual service visits would fall from 10,000 to 4,400 is due to people misreading the request for proposals document.

The 4,400 refers to an estimated number of therapy visits. Therapy is a core part of the program, but it is only one element, Luster said.

CESA 2 employees are still providing services in Rock County despite the lack of a contract. Without a contract, there is no way to guarantee services, she said.

Luster said CESA 2 wanted a clause in its contract that said if the agency exceeded its budget, the county would cover the difference.

She said CESA 2 Agency Administrator Daniel Hanrahan emailed her in February to say without such an agreement, the agency could “stop all services and lay off all staff” to halt costs to the county.

She read a copy of the email during the meeting and later showed it to a Gazette reporter.

In an interview after the meeting, Terri Wixom, CESA 2’s Birth to 3 Program coordinator, said Luster and other county officials portrayed the agency unfairly and inaccurately.

Wixom was not aware of Hanrahan’s email, but she said staffers have continued to show up for months without a contract.

Because of procedural rules, CESA 2 did not have a chance to respond to board members as they discussed the change. Many of their comments about CESA 2’s past budgets or its contract negotiations this year were incorrect, Wixom said.

At one point, board Chairman Brian Knudson said he thought the agency was using Rock County families as “pawns” to get what it wanted.

That perturbed Wixom, she said.

“Really? After 39 years, we’d all of a sudden use families as pawns?” she told The Gazette. “It’s beyond hurtful and completely inaccurate.”

Like many of the families who attended Wednesday, Wixom worried the new vendor would eventually reduce services.

Luster said United Cerebral Palsy uses the same therapy model as CESA 2, which should smooth the transition. If there are drastic changes, she encouraged residents to contact county officials.

Wixom said the CESA 2 Birth to 3 Program does not have other contracts. The office will close once it loses Rock County, causing 20 people to lose their jobs.

United Cerebral Palsy contacted CESA 2 to say Birth to 3 staffers would have the opportunity to apply for openings, she said.

Rock County officials were highly critical of how CESA 2 worked with the county over the past few years. But for CESA 2, the county’s negotiations were a “slap in the face” to the agency’s many years of service, Wixom said.

“No one ever sat down and said, ‘Let’s hash this out,’” she said. “This is ridiculous. We’re all adults here.”