Houston Chronicle - October 31, 2016
by Andrea Zelinski
Nearly 10,000 fewer babies and toddlers with disabilities are enrolled in state-supported therapy programs aimed to help them overcome their disabilities, amounting to a 14 percent drop since 2011, according to a report being released Tuesday.
Harris County is one of the hardest-hit areas, where the number of children enrolled in intervention programs is down by nearly a third, and enrollment of black children in the Gulf Coast region has fallen by more than 40 percent, according to the report by Texans Care for Children, a nonprofit advocacy group.
In its 28-page report on Texas' Early Childhood Intervention program, the group linked the decline of enrollment to Texas lawmakers cutting 11 percent from the program's budget since 2010, which resulted in a tightening of eligibility criteria and a drop of service providers from 58 to 47.
"Thousands of Texas kids are missing out on therapies that could help them communicate with their families, walk on their own or be ready for school," said Stephanie Rubin, CEO of Texans Care for Children.
More than 50,000 children are enrolled in the Early Childhood Intervention program, a state service that provides free or discounted therapy for babies and toddlers with developmental disabilities, such as speech delays, Down syndrome and autism.
Statewide enrollment in ECI fell to 50,643 children last year from 59,092 in 2011, according to the study. The number of children enrolled in ECI since 2011 in Harris County has dropped to 6,028 children from 8,731, or 31 percent, according to the study.
Bexar County's ECI enrollment fell from 5,635 children under age 3 in 2011 to 5,339 in 2015, a decline of 5.3 percent.
"While that decline is not as steep as the reduction in some of the other major metro areas, it's still worrisome, particularly considering that there was a 5.5 percent increase in the population of kids under agree 3 in Bexar County from 2011 to 2014," said Peter Clark, communications director for Texans Care for Children.
Won't be 'school-ready'
Along the Gulf Coast region, enrollment of black children in ECI programs has plummeted by 42 percent, Hispanic children by 29 percent and white children by 14 percent, according to the study.
"The drop primarily occurred from 2011 to 2012, when the state narrowed program eligibility," said Carrie Williams, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees ECI. "Enrollment has risen in the last few years, just not to its 2011 level."
Without additional funds, advocates fear ECI providers will have to further restrict eligibility, cutting off some families from intervention and placing the children at increased risk for abuse and neglect as families struggle to meet their needs.
"When the government makes it harder for kids to get in the program is a direct result about all the government's budget cuts and the Medicaid cuts, it means these kids are not getting therapy services, and they're not going to get them," said Kelly Klein, development director for Easter Seals Greater Houston, which sends therapists to work with more than 1,300 children and families to help overcome or manage their children's disabilities. "When they get to first grade or kindergarten, they're not going to be school-ready, or we're going to pay more money later."
Aida Garza enrolled her son, Michael James, in ECI a month after he was born with Down syndrome. Although he's nearly 2 years old and just learning to walk, he's progressing faster than his peers who have gone without therapy, she said.
"Any help that they can get to have a more normal life and a more normal future is such a blessing. If ECI didn't exist as it does, it would disable my child a lot more," Garza said.
Reduced funding for child therapy programs drew alarm bells last year after lawmakers approved $350 million in cuts to Medicaid, which provides health coverage to low-income people. Lawmakers argued the program's spending had skyrocketed in the last few years.
Parents and providers sued to keep the funds intact, but the Texas Supreme Court rejected the case in September, giving the Department of Health and Human Services the green light to move ahead with cost reductions. HHSC has not yet implemented the cuts, according to spokeswoman Carrie Williams, and the department is charting its next steps.
Advocates argue therapy for young children has the potential to help some overcome their disabilities. The study found 77 percent of children receiving ECI services in Texas significantly picked up new skills. Nationwide, 32 percent of children in state intervention programs did not need special education services when they started school.
The study comes as state lawmakers wrestle with how to address educating children with special needs following a Houston Chronicle investigation that revealed the Texas Education Agency effectively implemented a cap on the percentage of children school districts could accept into their special education programs. While the national average is 13 percent, state officials forced school districts to limit enrollment at 8.5 percent, leaving thousands of students in need of services to struggle in regular classrooms.
Melissa Stoeltje contributed to this report.