A couple of weeks ago, caretakers for 2,500 people with developmental disabilities were told that Montgomery County is ending its support coordination program and they have until Dec. 10 to select a private coordinator.

The service will still be state-funded, their eligibility and benefits won't change, and house calls will still be the norm. They'll just have a new civilian case worker overseeing those benefits. And that can be a big deal.

"It's a huge change, especially when you're dealing with kids with special needs. They thrive on routine and familiarity," said Angela Stanton, a Norristown mother of two.

For people with autism, developmental disabilities and mental retardation - and their families and caretakers - support coordinators are crucial. They help clients apply for government benefits, interpret and negotiate school instruction plans, guide the transition from school system to adult-disability system, and help find jobs and housing for those able to live on their own.

Many clients build strong bonds with their coordinators, and replacing that person can be scary and confusing. But county officials say it will result in better service.

Under the existing system, people who qualified for support coordination benefits could choose a county employee, or one of four private agencies.

County Commissioner Josh Shapiro said there were "inherent conflicts in the system, whereby county employees were asked to both provide services and oversee those same services."

So the county rounded up more private providers and began planning the transition, which should be complete by March.

The county organized three public meetings to let families meet employees of the 12 agencies.

At the session in Norristown on Monday night, dozens of caretakers wandered from table to table, picking up convention-style freebies and interviewing representatives. It was easy to see the size of each agency by the swag it handed out - EPIC had nylon backpacks; Service Access & Management had retractable earbuds; several had bowls of candy.

"We only have pens, we're a nonprofit," joked Mary Jane Fletcher of the Lenape Valley Foundation.

Stanton, the mother from Norristown, said she was leaning toward the ARC Alliance because "they offer a wider range of services - advocacy and guardianship and a lot of the issues we're dealing with now." Her 15-year-old son has autism and intellectual disabilities.

Linda Markert of Royersford said she liked the Penn Foundation because her brother had been in its group home. Markert said she has four disabled children, but was shopping Monday for her 22-year-old son, who is nonverbal autistic.

Once the clients select a new provider, the county will begin the grueling task of transferring their detailed case files. By March, the transition should be complete.

The county is losing 57 employees in the process, but it won't offer much help to the budget because their salaries were state-funded.

Shapiro - and pretty much everyone else involved in this process - is hoping that most of those laid-off support coordinators get hired by the private providers.

Stanton and Markert said they would like to know where their coordinators get hired, but they would not necessarily choose that agency as a result. "I still think I would make an independent decision," she said.