California lags behind most states in providing timely services to infants and toddlers with disabilities or developmental delays, and as a result, those children often wait weeks or months before receiving services.
That was one of the findings in a new report published by the Legislative Analyst’s Office. The report, titled, “Evaluating California’s System for Serving Infants and Toddlers With Special Needs,” assesses how California serves more than 40,000 children under the age of 3 with a disability or a significant developmental delay, such as not speaking or walking as expected.
It compares the state’s two agencies responsible for providing services to infants and toddlers with special needs — regional centers and the K-12 school system, which administers those services through school districts and county offices of education. Regional centers are operated by the California Department of Developmental Services. The report recommends that the state provide services only through regional centers, which serve 82 percent of the state’s infants and toddlers with special needs.
“We identified what we thought were important weaknesses in the system. One of those weaknesses is a disjointed system,” said Ryan Anderson, a spokesman for the Legislative Analyst’s Office. The LAO states in the report that if one agency is responsible for all children with special needs, it would reduce delays and ensure equity.
Typically, the delay in California occurs in the time it takes for a school and regional center to develop an individualized family service plan — a child’s plan for services they need such as weekly speech therapy — as well as the time it takes to implement that plan. Those delays place California 46th out of 50 states in meeting the initial plan deadline and 47th in meeting the deadline to begin services, the report states. It finds that while most states meet those deadlines 95 percent of the time, California meets them less than 85 percent of the time.
The report states regional centers are better equipped to be the lead agency because they serve more children, offer more parental choice and are more likely to use private or state subsidized insurance such as Medi-Cal to cover expenses.
While it is standard for a school to hire its own service provider, such as a speech therapist, regional centers typically coordinate services with a list of specialists so parents have more options, Anderson said. Regional centers are also required by law to find out if families have health insurance plans and attempt to pay for services with insurance before using state funds.
The report also emphasizes the importance of early intervention for children who have developmental delays, such as an infant who has not spoken their first words by 18 months old. It states that many children who are initially referred for developmental delays and receive help early “show significant progress and are determined to no longer require special supports at age 3.”
This is one reason developmental screenings are important for infants and toddlers, said Deborah Turner, lead administrator for an early intervention program called Help Me Grow, which works with doctors to integrate developmental screenings into their practice. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends screenings at 9, 18 and 30-month doctor visits.
Turner said screenings alone cannot predict every aspect of a child’s development but it is a critical tool that helps families to understand milestones a child should typically reach by a certain age for talking, walking and other skills.
“We don’t want to scare parents, we want to say ‘This is useful to you,’”Turner said. “Screening is an attempt to get information; it does not mean the child absolutely needs services but it could mean they need support.”