ROCHESTER, N.Y. — There is a call to the Gov. Kathy Hochul and the New York State Legislature to increase funding for early intervention efforts that could help infants and toddlers.
“The words that she was saying weren’t so clear to me and I kind of didn’t understand what she was saying," said first-time mom, Qutisha Britt, who feared that her daughter, Azalya, could have been speech or developmentally delayed and reached out for help. “That wait was maybe a month or two before I could even get in before they could even evaluate her to know what was our next step after that.”
Testing showed 4-year-old Azalya is doing fine and didn’t need services, but her mom recognizes what other parents are dealing with. So Britt joined The Children’s Agenda organization and others at a news conference calling for increased funding for early childhood intervention.
“Eighty-five percent of brain development happens before age 3," said The Children’s Agenda Chief Program Officer, Brigit Hurley.
She says far too many infants and toddlers are unable to access early intervention services in a timely manner, a time she says is critical. “This is a time when synapses are forming rapidly and connections are made that will change the course of a child’s life, particularly a child who has a developmental delay or disability.”
Now, there is a statewide coalition that includes some 95 organizations that signed a letter to the governor.
They are calling for an 11% increase in funding for early intervention in the state budget to increase the availability of service providers and to decrease wait times for children. They say there is a shortage of physical, occupational and speech therapists, and other service providers, causing delays for those waiting for services in treatment.
“Right now, young children in New York are waiting for therapy and services beyond a state-set 30-day timeline, over 200 in Monroe County alone, because New York state has not increased the payment rates for the providers of those services," said Hurley.
“I cannot express how profound of an impact these providers have on families," said Step by Step Pediatric Therapy Services Occupational Therapist Amanda Wilbert. ”We have limited benefits, limited health care packages, no reimbursement for gas or wear and tear on our cars, and the long hours that surpass a nine to five job.”
The Children’s Agenda reports there are 150,000 New York children ages five and younger who are eligible for early intervention and preschool special education services. Each year about 60,000 children are enrolled in the program. One-third of children in New York are waiting longer than the required 30 days for services.
“The wait lists are disproportionately long for children of color, children living in poverty, and families who live in rural areas," said Hurley.
“It's not a Monroe County issue. It's a statewide issue," said Monroe County Executive Adam Bello.
“It's not exclusive to one community. It's something that affects a state of 20 million people in 62 counties," said Assemblyman Josh Jensen.
Both Bello and Jensen support the effort, citing their own personal connections.
“I didn't speak until I was 5-years-old. And if I would not have received speech therapy services at that early age, I know that I would not have found a voice to speak on behalf of the people that I have the honor and privilege to represent today. My son is having his life changed every day by the services he's receiving now, in school," said Jensen.
“This issue is personal to me. Just like Assemblymember Jensen, my family too has benefited from early intervention services. My son has benefited from early intervention services before he reached kindergarten. If it weren't for early intervention services, he would not have been able to start kindergarten in the position that he was in, he would not have been able to keep up with his peers and he would not be the successful student that he is today," said Bello.
Spectrum News 1 has reached out to Gov. Hochul's office for comment on this story.