By the time Kaylee Rivard started receiving early intervention speech therapy services this year, her Greater Victoria family had been waiting for more than two frustrating years.
Unfortunately, the frustration wasn’t over. By the time Kaylee began therapy, she was only four months away from her fifth birthday - the cutoff for early intervention therapies. The therapy was barely underway when it was suddenly over, and Kaylee’s worried family had no choice but to send her off to kindergarten this fall knowing that her significant speech delay hadn’t been dealt with.
“We’d pretty much given up after sitting on that waitlist for two years,” says dad Jason Rivard. “We felt better when we finally got some services, but then they were gone. Her speech is still severely delayed, but they discharged her anyway.”
Those kinds of waits aren’t uncommon for B.C. children anymore. Provincial funding for services such as speech, occupational therapy and physiotherapy for children from birth to school entry hasn’t increased since 2009, even while the population has continued to grow. The Rivards ended up with so much precious time wasted while they sat on wait lists that Kaylee got a mere four months of service, but there are even sadder examples of children who were left waiting so long that they “aged out” of supports without receiving anything.
“The speech therapist we saw at the Westshore did a fantastic job, but there just wasn’t enough time,” says Jason. “She turned five in April and that was that.”
The B.C. Association for Child Development and Intervention is the umbrella group for child-development centres around the province, and has been documenting with increasing alarm the growing length of wait times for children needing ECD therapies.
Costs have continued to rise in the more than seven years since the last funding increase, says BCACDI executive director Jason Gordon – rent, heat, electricity, and other costs associated with operating a building. In addition, there has been an increase in demand for service and in the complexity of challenges families face. That has put providers in the uncomfortable position of having to choose between keeping the lights on or providing the level of services that a child needs.
“The revenue from government has been essentially frozen for more than 7 years,” says BCACDI. “It’s not uncommon for waits for speech therapy to be more than a year, so if a child gets referred at age four, they could end up getting no services by the time they age out at age five.”
Not only have wait times grown significantly, the type of service that children receive has become increasingly consultative rather than one-to-one as the centres try to stretch scarce dollars even further. Helping families learn how to work with their children at home to reduce developmental delays is obviously an important aspect of therapy, notes Jason. But in some cases the evidence based approach may be intensive one-to-one work with a trained therapist, he adds - and it’s that kind of support that has been hit hardest by the funding freeze.
“These foundational child development programs are still funded at pre-2009 levels,” says Jason from BCACDI. “We need to make it clear to government that the public sees access to these supports as a right for children. Regardless of your political ideology, there’s a positive return on investment when you give children the support they need. It improves quality of life for children and their families, and saves Government money on future costs.”
In theory, children transition from early intervention programs to the school system where they receive similar services through the local school district. In reality, resources for therapies are even scarcer once a child starts kindergarten, and services are primarily consultative rather than direct. Another reason why access to early intervention programs is so crucial.
In Kaylee Rivard’s case, her family contacted the Sooke School District before Kaylee started kindergarten and were told that the district had eliminated those types of support services. Alarmed, they told their speech therapist, who promptly phoned the school district and then assured the family that they would definitely be getting some kind of service.
“Kaylee is lagging so far behind, we’re worried it’s going to affect her learning,” he says. “Her mother and I can understand maybe 70 to 80 per cent of what she’s saying, but in a school setting, that all gets much more difficult.”
Kaylee recently began receiving one day a week of speech therapy through her school, but the Rivards have since heard from her teacher that Kaylee appears to have other noticeable delays as well, affecting her ability to hold a pencil properly or use scissors. The Rivards now have a referral to a pediatrician for further assessment of Kaylee.
When children can’t access services from birth to age 5 they are far more likely to not reach their full developmental potential by the time they start kindergarten, which increases the pressure on school districts to provide more services, says Jason Gordon.
“In the last Teacher – Government labour dispute a primary theme was how teachers required more supports for children and youth with special needs in the classroom. Well, a big reason is because there are unacceptable waits for children to access early intervention services that have left them without support when they were younger.”
Funding pressures are also forcing some child-development centres to shift traditional practices, adds Jason.
“For instance, we know it’s a best practice to provide care in the family home whenever possible, but that requires funding to cover transportation costs for child-development staff,” he says. “Now, some agencies have had to cut back on their outreach because they just don’t have the budget to do that. Families in rural and remote communities or with transportation issues are faced with additional challenges to access services.”
“It’s frustrating to everyone when you can’t give the best possible service because you don’t have the funding. This Province has an existing infrastructure of Child Development Centres that has been in place for more than 40 years. These agencies are Accredited to ensure they deliver accountable and effective services, are in tune with the needs of their communities, and link families with a host of programs and services that they may find beneficial. They have the service delivery expertise and professional staff to positively impact the lives of the children and families they serve, but so many families are struggling to access these services due to the lack of adequate funding. We have engaged with all levels of Government over the past several years with no success. We need the general public’s help in bringing these issues to light to ensure Child Development Centres across BC have adequate resources so that no child or family has to wait to access the programs and services to help them reach their true potential.”