This commentary originally appeared in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Jenny remembers the joy of bringing her newborn son, Paxton, home from the hospital – and vividly remembers six months later when he was diagnosed with hydrocephalus and white matter deficiency in his brain.
It was nerve-wracking news for the Frisco mom, but she felt better once therapists in the local Early Childhood Intervention (ECI) program started working with the family. Thanks in part to those ECI therapists, three-year-old Paxton is now walking and talking — and Jenny says he’s the happiest kid she’s ever been around.
We hear similar success stories across Texas, but our new report on ECI in the DFW region shows that many children have missed out on these services due to state cuts.
ECI is a state program that contracts with community organizations like MHMR of Tarrant County, Metrocare Services, and others to provide coordinated therapies to children under age three with autism, speech delays, Down syndrome, and other disabilities and developmental delays.
The program has been hugely successful helping kids reach goals like swallowing their food, learning to walk, communicating with their families, and getting ready for school.
But annual state funding for the program has fallen 11 percent since cuts started in 2011 despite a growing population of young kids in Texas. On top of that, the 2015 Legislature enacted controversial Medicaid cuts for children’s therapies.
Our report shows the cuts are taking a toll. From 2011 to 2016, ECI enrollment fell 10 percent statewide and 12 percent in North Texas. Collin and Dallas counties experienced two of the largest enrollment declines in Texas, falling 35 percent and 22 percent, respectively.
Kids of all backgrounds were affected, but children of color took the biggest hit. In North Texas, enrollment of Black children fell 22 percent from 2011 to 2016 despite significant population growth. Hispanic enrollment also fell disproportionately.
But Tarrant County has been a bright spot. More of Tarrant’s young kids with disabilities are getting the support they need, with ECI enrollment jumping five percent since 2011. The other good news is overall enrollment started to partially bounce back statewide and in the region, although the number of kids served is still below 2011 levels.
Unfortunately, there are still troubling signs. The one ECI provider for Tarrant County — ECI of North Central Texas, housed at MHMR of Tarrant County — is stretched thin due to state cuts, consistently serving more kids than its state contract covers.
We found the financial strain of state cuts has contributed to ECI community agencies cutting back their “Child Find” outreach efforts, which work with pediatricians, child care centers, and others to id enroll children who need ECI services.
Additionally, state funding cuts have pushed nonprofit ECI programs to close their doors, including three last year and three more this year. Even when state officials find another agency to pick up that region, many kids lose out on services during the transition period and ramp up of the new program.
Just last month the Texas House declared this issue a top priority, and many of us were hopeful the House and Senate would work together to find a solution. Since then, Hurricane Harvey intervened, and legislators have appropriately focused their attention on relief and recovery. However, the needs of these little Texans haven’t gone away. In fact, for families and ECI providers on the Gulf Coast, these services and state funds are more critical than ever.
Let’s ensure more parents like Jenny can tell the story of their kids learning to walk or talk with the help of ECI. Babies and toddlers with disabilities need state leaders to be their champions.