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Philadelphia lags behind other cities in getting children early intervention services

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Philadelphia lags behind other Pennsylvania cities in getting early intervention services to eligible infants, toddlers, and preschoolers who fail to meet certain developmental milestones, according to a recent report.

Public Citizens for Children and Youth found that thousands of children with developmental delays who could be getting services are not — which potentially costs the city more later in special education and other expensive services.

Even though there have been improvements over the last six years in Philadelphia’s use of this state program, the city’s rate of enrollment is the lowest among Pennsylvania’s major cities.

"Had Philadelphia performed at the rates of these other cities, up to 7,000 more children would have been helped," the report concludes.

This is troubling because, according to indicators, Philadelphia has more intense risk factors for developmental delays, including higher rates of child poverty, low-birth-weight babies, lead exposure, and mothers without high school diplomas.

Philadelphia’s rate of participation from birth to age 2 is 8.7 percent and for 3- and 4-year-olds the rate is 12 percent, the report said. Reading, by contrast, enrolls 15 percent of children under 2 and 18 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds. Pittsburgh enrolls 10 percent of those 2 and under and 17.8 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds.

"This suggests that the variation among Pennsylvania cities is tied more closely to local systems to identify and enroll children than on the actual level of need," the report said.

Denise Taylor Patterson, who coordinates the city’s Infant Toddler Early Intervention Program, said that Philadelphia has made progress in enrolling families, is in full state and federal compliance, and has streamlined its referral process. It has also bolstered its collaborations, partnerships, and trainings with organizations that come into contact with young children, such as WIC and the Lead Prevention Program.

Still, she said, "we will continue to agressively pursue reaching more chidren as early as possible" while noting that "many of the factors that makes these families ‘at risk’ are also factors that may keep them from accessing the Early Intervention Program."

Among the problems the report cites is a lack of enough "affordable, inclusive, high-quality early care and education" to complement the early intervention. In addition, eligible children are often not screened, or they are screened but not referred to the program. Many families also find enrolling children in the program too difficult to negotiate, or they enroll them only to have them drop out.

Another major problem is the system’s "bifurcated" structure, with separate divisions for infant/toddler and preschool. Parents often can’t negotiate the transitions, the report said. And doing what’s necessary to continue the services once the children are in kindergarten also poses a challenge. Growth in the preschool program is greater, indicating that eligible younger children are not getting services.

Overall, there are "financial, systemic, linguistic and cultural barriers to access," the report said.

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