- Federal data about infants and toddlers who are referred, evaluated and found eligible for early intervention services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act would assist states in identifying and solving disparities in services, according to recommendations in a U.S. Government Accountability Office report released Thursday.
- According to a GAO survey of all states, 28 already collect demographic data for pre-enrolled babies. Of those states, the percentage of infants and toddlers who advanced from being referred to being evaluated "differed widely" by race, but the percentage of those who made it from the eligible stage to enrollment was more balanced across all races.
- GAO also found a lack of qualified providers was one of the top challenges cited by state early intervention leaders. Other concerns included staffing challenges in state lead agency offices and outreach efforts to identify potentially eligible children.
IDEA's Part C program provides grants to states for early intervention services, such as speech and physical therapies, to children under the age of 3 who have developmental delays or who are at risk for delays and disabilities. In FY 2023, Part C received $540 million.
About 770,591 infants and toddlers were served under Part C in 2021, according to a 12-month cumulative count.
State involvement in Part C is not mandatory, but all states participate, according to Maureen Greer, executive director of the Infant and Toddler Coordinators Association, an organization whose members are state directors of Part C programs.
Regarding the GAO report, the U.S. Department of Education collects demographic data on babies enrolled in IDEA Part C services, but told GAO researchers it was uncertain that mandated collection of demographic data for pre-enrolled babies would be helpful to states.
Greer said that information would be beneficial in helping Part C professionals better understand why some children aren't progressing through the pre-enrollment stages. "I think there's a lot more questions that we need to ask and find answers to," Greer said.
The GAO survey found that 53% of the babies and their families referred to Part C services from July 2021 through June 2022 ended up enrolling in services. States have the flexibility to set their own criteria for Part C eligibility, and GAO found that participation varied widely among states. For example, about 2% of children under 3 in Arkansas received early intervention services in 2021. In Massachusetts, 20% of young children were served.
When looking at how many children who were referred for services and then had an evaluation to see if they qualified, 100% of those referred in California and Florida progressed to an evaluation, but only 43% of children in Texas did.
When looking at the same pre-enrollment progress by race, researchers found that 86% of Asian children advanced from referral to an evaluation, while only 59% of American Indian or Alaska native children did. For Black or African American young children it was 75% and for both Hispanic or Latino and White children, it was 81%.
"We all have work to do," Greer said about ensuring equity in access to services by race, income, geography and other characteristics.
Greer called the GAO report "accurate" and "objective" and echoed the findings that the field is struggling to find early intervention providers. The GAO survey found 46 out of 50 states that responded to the question about challenges said there was a lack of qualified service providers.
It's a "perfect storm" of the desire and demand to serve more young children but limitations on funding and personnel, Greer said. "There are states where we could give them several million more dollars, and they just simply don't have the people to provide the service."
Research over the years from various sources has pointed to the benefits of early intervention on children's development and family bonding.
"The earlier we can intervene and support that child's optimal development, the better off the community will be in terms of healthy educated taxpayers and community members," Greer said.