Salmon Arm parents Teresa Martin and Sean Cameron were already familiar with the Shuswap Children’s Association services when their now four-year-old son Hunter started showing signs of developmental delays. Hunter’s older brother Jesse James had benefited from supports he had received through the centre when he was younger, and the family knew firsthand what a difference the right therapies and interventions can make in a child’s life.
Hunter was speaking less than 10 words when he turned three and was born with low body tone, a condition that’s linked to a variety of disorders. But with the right interventions for children like Hunter in the early years, the brain can essentially be rewired to find new strategies for managing such challenges. Addressing speech and language deficits is a vital intervention for young children, as they risk learning delays and other problems if they reach school age without getting that targeted support.
But wait lists of months or even a year or more for child development therapies – speech, physio, and occupational therapy - are now common around B.C. Because Hunter was already four at the time that his delays started to manifest, he was at a significant disadvantage to get services before he “aged out” of Early Childhood Development supports on his fifth birthday.
That left just one year for Hunter and his family to make it through any wait lists and get services. It’s been difficult, acknowledges Teresa. Adding to the challenge are funding-based rules for certain kinds of support that have restricted Hunter’s access to some programs.
“Supported Childhood Development is the program that comes after a child has aged out of infant development [at age three], but to qualify for the Supported Childhood Development program Hunter had to be in a licensed daycare or preschool for that support to be available,” says Teresa. (The program is funded primarily as a support for working parents.)
“I put him in daycare 3 days a week so we could get that service and having the assistant really made a difference. But funding got cut for him eventually because another child was more in need of support. I kept him in daycare until April, but then I couldn’t afford it anymore and had to take him out.”
Theresa says she and her husband have been told that “because neither my husband nor I are working right now, we didn't qualify for daycare subsidy.” That meant the family couldn't receive this kind of support for Hunter.
“The Supported Childhood Development workers aren't allowed to work with children if they attend a government-funded Strong Start program,” adds Teresa.
Hunter’s speech did improve from his therapy, she says. He still has “a lot of grammar issues,” but can make himself understood to his family. Teresa is very concerned about what kind of support Hunter will get from the school system now that he no longer qualifies for Early Childhood Development, having turned five in August and begun kindergarten.
“The speech services are horrible in our schools throughout the province,” says Teresa. “There’s one therapist who has to go between five or six schools just in Salmon Arm.”
Teresa worries that children with Hunter’s level of delay are getting bypassed now that funding dollars have tightened and priority is given to children with more severe delays, rather than to all children who just need help - whether a lot or a little.
Hunter’s challenges are significant enough to cause him learning and adaptive problems, but not big enough to secure shrinking support dollars going to the community agencies that provide intervention services and therapies. Many member agencies with the B.C. Association for Child Development and Intervention haven’t seen funding lifts for vital therapies in the last seven years, even while the population continues to grow.
Hunter’s three-year-old sister, Arizona, is also struggling with speech delays. She has been on the wait list for services for over a year now, says Teresa. The family has been told not to expect more than six sessions of each therapy over six weeks for Arizona, as the demand for service is just too high to give her more.