In the grand scheme of things, Peachland mother Joanie Smith knows her two-year-old son Ryan's (not his real name) twisted baby toes probably won’t end up being a major developmental concern.
But Joanie (not her real name) also knows that now is the time to be dealing with the problem. So it’s no small wonder the family feels frustrated and worried after being stuck waiting for more than a year so far just for an assessment at the child development centre.
“It could be that it’s a tendon or a muscle pulling his toe crooked, or it could be an issue with the bone,” says the mom of her toddler. “Either way, it needs to be dealt with now, while he’s young.”
Rhonda Nelson couldn’t agree more. As executive director at the Kelowna child development centre where he has been waitlisted, Rhonda says the fact that so many local children are now waiting for services “weighs very heavily on our staff.”
“We have wait lists,” says Rhonda, who heads up the Starbright Child Development Centre. “Government has not increased the funds administered by MCFD directed to child development centres providing early intervention services. Without additional dollars to hire the number of staff we actually need to serve the demand, children wait. The level of funding for our child development centre hasn’t changed even as the population in this area has increased significantly.”
The population in the Central Okanagan has increased by more than 13,000 people since 2009. That means the number of children requiring developmental services has increased as well. Research has found that as many as one in six children will experience developmental delays significant enough to benefit from intervention.
Some Central Okanagan children are “aging out” on a waitlist for early childhood intervention services without having received any support, notes Rhonda. While efforts are made to do an assessment and provide some recommendations prior to school entry for as many children as possible, those children will not have had active service.
Waits for therapeutic services such as speech therapy, occupational therapy and physiotherapy are particularly long. “A wait of up to, or more than, a year is not atypical for any of the therapies, and yet they’re so foundational to development.”
Joanie took her son to the doctor to ask about his feet around his first birthday. She’d noticed strange yellow bumps on the outside of his “pinkie toes” and wondered if he might have a fungus. The doctor watched the boy walk and told Joanie the problem wasn’t a fungus, but something to do with his foot or leg formation.
“I had clipped the bumps off his feet initially, but that was a big mistake. Those bumps turned out to be callouses that had formed because he was walking on the sides of his toes,” says Joanie. “The doctor recommended me to the Starbright program for an assessment. I applied, got the confirmation that they had received my application, and haven’t heard anything further.”
The impact of not intervening in the early years often shows up when a child starts school, notes Rhonda.
“If a child isn’t developing language, has sensory issues, or has physical developmental delays, that has a huge effect when the child reaches school age,” Rhonda says. “That’s where the weight lies on the shoulders of all of our staff, and, down the road on the school system as these children enter without their needs being met.”
It’s not only just about ensuring children get the therapy services they need, she adds. For example, daycare centres and preschools may not be able to include children with significant developmental needs without the support of additional personnel. When a child cannot be part of a daycare or preschool, the financial health of the family is directly affected when parents are trying to attend school or work. Without their child being included in child care placements they are unable to do that.
“What makes it so difficult is that the lack of appropriate funding is active in determining the outcomes for children and families,” says Rhonda. “Adding one extra therapist to each of the three therapies would have a huge impact on our waitlists both in number of children seen and in how soon they would be seen. Simply adding an additional consultant and more assistants for children in the preschools and daycares would also truly make a difference for so many families”, says Rhonda.
“As a society I think it is a denial of reality to say that we don’t need to adjust funding dollars to address these health concerns of children in light of a growing population,” she says. “If we don’t, we are in effect sentencing these children at the start of their lives to potentially poorer outcomes for the rest of their lives.”