Fewer and fewer Colorado children are receiving services to treat potential developmental issues early, raising the possibility that they may need more intensive help later.
Referrals to state early intervention services for developmental delays declined last year, and about 20% fewer Colorado children received them in January 2021 than in March 2020, according to the annual report. Kids Count.
Programs welcome children up to the age of 2 and can include services ranging from physiotherapy and speech therapy to hearing aids and counseling for parents on how to deal with difficult children’s behaviors.
This is important because the sooner children start receiving services, the more likely they are to return to a typical developmental path by the time they get to school, said Bill Jaeger, vice president of initiatives. policies and early years at the Colorado Children’s Campaign. The brain is more easily shaped in the first three years of life, so while developmental delays can be treated later, it usually requires more intensive and expensive services, he said.
“The first years of life are this amazing window,” he said.
Often, referrals come from a child’s health checkups or when a preschool or daycare teacher notices a child is struggling, but children had fewer eyes on them year round. last due to the pandemic, Jaeger said. According to the Kids Count report, about one in five families skipped at least some scheduled visits to healthy children last year, where their children would normally be screened for developmental delays.
Parents can request an assessment themselves if they are concerned about their children’s development, but most are unaware that they have a choice.
“The decline in referrals is probably not because we have fewer children with developmental delays,” he said.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all children be screened for developmental delays at 9 months, 18 months, and 2.5 years, and for autism at 2 years. When a screening suggests that children may develop more slowly than expected, they are referred to the state’s early intervention program, which uses a team to determine if they have a delay and if it is severe enough to. be eligible for services.
The number of children referred has largely rebounded, but not the number served, said Christy Scott, director of the early intervention program in the Colorado Department of Social Services. This is likely due to at least two factors: the state has changed the eligibility criteria and it has been difficult to match families and providers who have the same preference for in-person or virtual services, he said. she declared.
“Some families simply choose not to get services now, or not to get services through early intervention,” she said.
Stricter eligibility rules
In July 2020, the state tightened the eligibility criteria for children to benefit from early intervention, as a measure to save the pandemic, said Jennifer Levin, director of public policy for the Colorado Arc. This automatically prevented children with less severe needs from getting services, she said.
“Before the change in the emergency rule, these children would be covered,” she said.
Previously, children who were 25% behind their peers could get services, but this percentage has increased to 33%. For example, a 2-year-old whose developmental abilities were more like an 18-month-old would have qualified, but now the child would have to function at the level of a 16-month-old to qualify.
Two months “doesn’t sound drastically different, but the trajectory of early childhood development is pretty quick,” said Jodi Litfin, clinical child psychologist and deputy program manager at Rocky Mountain Human Services, which provides intervention services. early for kids in Denver.
There are no plans to change the eligibility threshold again, even if the budget situation changes, Scott said. The state is working to create and fund a “more flexible” Early Start program for children with less severe delays, so that early intervention focuses on children with the greatest needs. she declared. The new program is expected to start enrolling children in July 2022.
“If we can get these kids in, look at the needs of this child and this family, maybe we can put them in touch with already existing resources,” she said.
While fewer children were served last year, the state deserves credit for continuing to work with families through virtual sessions, Jaeger said. Early intervention relies heavily on teaching parents exercises and strategies to support their child’s development, which can be done from a distance, he said.
Litfin said rule changes are a factor in the reduced number of children they serve, but families also face more barriers to getting the services they need. It’s not an easy process, even in normal times, she said, and some of the most vulnerable families are not participating in the numbers they did before the pandemic: those in low-income neighborhoods, which had a baby in an intensive neonatal center. – care unit, or who speak a language other than English or Spanish.
“I think with all the stressors families went through during the pandemic, it has become even more difficult” to get help, she said.
Participating families in Denver tended to need more support during the pandemic than in previous years, as many faced financial stress and tried to help older children learn at home while working with their older children. young people, Litfin said. Service coordinators have helped parents connect parents with food and rental assistance resources, and some parents have secured “respite care” to keep tabs on their older children while they are away. ‘they had dates, she said.
In Denver, the city was able to invest money in setting up a program for children with less severe needs called Early Step, which launched in April, Litfin said. They also received a grant to fund a “Family Navigator,” which will direct families receiving care at Denver Health clinics to early intervention, early stage and other resources to support their children’s development, a- she declared.
In the future, these types of partnerships are going to be more important as families continue to grapple with the effects of the pandemic, Litfin said.
“No agency and certainly no program can meet all of the needs,” she said.
Need more help
If children’s needs are not identified early on, they may need more help when they get to school. Miranda B. Kogon, deputy head of student equity and opportunities at Denver Public Schools, said they were working with groups serving young children with developmental delays to ensure a smooth transition for them. families when their children reach kindergarten. They are also preparing to adapt if families have concerns different from those before the pandemic, she said in a statement.
“For example, many families are going to prioritize their child’s socio-emotional learning due to the drastic reductions in the opportunities their child had with their peers of the same age during the pandemic,” she said. .
It will be difficult to disentangle the lingering effects of delayed interventions from the other challenges children faced in 2020, Jaeger said. Many families face financial stress, food insecurity, isolation and mental health issues, all of which can impact a child’s development, he said.
That doesn’t mean kids will be branded for life, but they’ll need more support from caring adults, Jaeger said. Children don’t always automatically recover from the challenges of their early years, but they tend to do well when they receive targeted help and know their parents and others believe in their abilities, he said.
“Children have a tremendous capacity to overcome adversity,” he said. “It’s all about doing everything we can to support the full potential of our children.