Parents in Philadelphia who have concerns that their child may have a disability or a delay can obtain help even before the child reaches school age. A federal law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, requires Pennsylvania to offer Early Intervention services for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers who need them. Research has confirmed that such early identification can improve educational outcomes for children.
The state arranges for services that can include evaluations and development of an individual plan to assist the child. Children may receive special instruction, speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, support for the family, and behavioral services.
For children under age 3 who may need these services, families can call the referral line for ChildLink at 215-685-4646. For children ages 3-6, parents can contact Elwyn, a private provider hired by the commonwealth to provide these services, at 215-895-5500.
Advocates are concerned that some children who need assistance are not getting it and that the timeliness and quality of services provided are insufficient.
The latest figures suggest that Philadelphia serves about 13,000 children in this system. But according to a 2013 report by Public Citizens for Children and Youth called “Philadelphia’s Early Intervention System: Progress, But Still Not Good Enough For Our Kids,” many children are still underserved.
The report says that “the likelihood of developmental delays and disabilities is closely tied to … poverty, abuse or neglect, exposure to lead, low birth-weight and premature birth. … Philadelphia [should be serving] about 7,000 more children than it does.”
We need more public awareness about the availability of these services so that parents can access them. The state must make greater efforts to ensure that physicians, day-care providers and others who see infants, toddlers, and preschoolers are providing timely referrals for the families who may not know about Early Intervention services.
A second problem is ensuring timely and comprehensive evaluations. They need to be conducted quickly, because determining a child’s need is critical before services can begin. We continue to hear that parents are waiting for their children to be evaluated. This is not acceptable, because the key to Early Intervention services is starting quickly.
Advocates have also been concerned for some time that the involved agencies are not seamlessly transitioning the children within the current system’s different levels. One group of providers serves children under 3, Elwyn serves children starting at age 3, and the School District serves children ages 5 and up.
This framework leaves too many opportunities for gaps in services as the children age into the next system. The state should consider modifying this structure, because it leads to unacceptable delays.
Finally, Pennsylvania must continue to provide early learning settings. Seven in 10 preschoolers in Early Intervention now learn in inclusive settings, but space in these programs is limited, especially for children with more severe physical or behavioral impairments.
We need a comprehensive system of services to ensure that children with disabilities can be served with their non-disabled peers.
The Public Interest Law Center is currently meeting with state officials to address the documented and sustained systemic problems in the Early Intervention program. Parents who have concerns can contact us or other advocates for assistance.
Here are some helpful numbers:
Parent Education & Advocacy Leadership Center (215-567-6143)
Disability Rights Network (215-238-8070)
Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania (215-751-1800)
Education Law Center (215-238-6970).