My son, Christopher, is a wonderful example of what happens when our state commits to ensuring the health, safety and happiness of all children, including those with severe developmental disabilities.
Christopher was not expected to speak or walk, but thanks to North Carolina’s Infant-Toddler Program, he walks, he talks and he enjoys the sights and sounds of a very exciting world. Sadly, the Infant-Toddler Program has been whittled away over the past 10 years by eligibility restrictions and budget cuts, leaving many children without access to needed services.
The first 1,000 days of a child’s life have a profound effect on future growth and development. During this time, a child’s experiences actually shape the physical architecture of his or her brain, laying the foundation for later learning and development. This fact is true for all children, including those born with developmental delays and disabilities.
In 1986, Congress approved funding for the Early Intervention initiative to help states improve outcomes for young children with developmental delays and disabilities. North Carolina implemented the Early Intervention initiative by creating the N.C. Infant-Toddler Program, which serves children 0-3 through a network of 16 Child Developmental Services Agencies, each comprised of highly qualified developmental specialists.
Shortly after we took Christopher home from the hospital, one of these specialists came to our home to introduce the N.C. Infant-Toddler Program. Over the next three years, Christopher received physical therapy, speech therapy and regular evaluations, and our case manager provided me with the informational and emotional support I needed to navigate a complicated system of care and to manage the stress of raising a young child with a severe disability. As a result of these services, Christopher has achieved a level of happiness and independence that we and his doctors never thought possible.
This program also serves children who suffer from relatively mild delays that can be alleviated if addressed early in life. Speech delays, for instance, are treatable at an early age but, if left unchecked, they can grow to be serious impediments to child’s success. Evaluations of the N.C. Infant-Toddler Program indicate that about 60 percent of the 7,000 children who “graduate” from the program each year do so with “age appropriate skills,” which saves the state millions in special education expenses and reduces the need for life-long supportive services.
Unfortunately, the state has imposed eligibility restrictions over the past 10 years that have excluded many children from services. According to national studies, there may be as many as 20,000 additional infants and toddlers in North Carolina who could benefit from Early Intervention services but don’t have access to them.
A significant subset of this group is children who have been abused or neglected. In North Carolina, many of the victims of maltreatment aged 0-3 are not automatically referred to the N.C. Infant-Toddler Program despite the vast body of evidence showing that maltreatment results in developmental delays and the federal law requiring such referrals.
In 2013, the legislature approved a $10 million cut in funding and the elimination of over 150 full-time positions within the N.C. Infant-Toddler Program. Neither Gov. Pat McCrory nor the Department of Health and Human Services voiced a concern.
The reductions were partially implemented this year and have already called into question the program’s ability to meet federal requirements with regard to eligibility categories and service timeframes. If the additional reductions set for July 1 take place, serious compliance issues will come into play, jeopardizing the program’s large federal grant and its future efficacy.
Children and families across North Carolina need early intervention services. Since Christopher’s birth 26 years ago, I have had the opportunity to meet hundreds of parents of children with disabilities in our state. Some have had access to Early Intervention services, and others have not. The difference is profound. In some cases, it’s the difference between a child thriving in school and struggling to graduate. In others, it’s the difference between speaking and silence.
As North Carolina legislators craft the state budget over the coming weeks, I urge them to restore funding to the N.C. Infant-Toddler Program for the sake of our state and our children.
Sam Bowman-Fuhrmann of Mount Airy is a member of the Commission on Children with Special Health Care Needs.