The “Turning 3” quandary

Some background:

Under Federal special education law (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act- IDEA),  services for children birth to 3 (here in Massachusetts) are provided by Early Intervention (Part C of the IDEA).  When children turn 3, they are eligible to receive services, if they meet different criteria, through their local school district (Part B of the IDEA).

Fact #1: Only approximately 70% of children receiving EI qualify for special education.

Fact #2:  The IDEA provides for a so-called “seamless transition” between the two entities.  The service delivery goes from family-focused to appropriate for the student.  Having a disability alone does not qualify a child for an IEP.

Under the guise of formal “Service Coordination”, EI is responsible for supporting families in the transition process.  They are to identify other resources than special education ones, when appropriate.

My take-away over the past few weeks… EI administrators and staff can be just as dysfunctional as school district administrators and staff.  And that is inexcusable given the family focus that EI is not only allowed to, but mandated to, have.

No one seems to hold anyone accountable for the fact many (not all) school districts receive referrals from EI and Consent for Evaluation and don’t conduct the assessments within 30 school days, or hold the initial meeting within 45 school days  Sometimes, districts hold these for months.  Finally, the district schedules the meeting so close to the child’s birthday, there is are overly restrictive limits on the time parents have to observe potential placements.  As well, parents are not always getting 30 days to review and return the proposed IEP.  Most galling, EI is told they are not allowed to provide service after the child’s third birthday at all.  So, even if you get an IEP, EI can no longer help you review it or support you in the transition process if the child has turned 3.  I actually had two EI Directors tell me this week, “It’s not my problem”.

I implore the Department of Public Health to more pro-actively work with the DESE and local school districts to ensure that “seamless transitions” can occur. Families don’t always get offered what they want for their child, but they certainly have a right to have the process completed in a timely manner which allows them to thoughtfully respond to the proposal and partially reject it, if needed.  I implore DPH to tell programs to make sure their service coordinators are providing the information about assessments (content and what to request) and timelines.  I hope EI can be told it’s ok to tell families that the district has 30 schools days to conduct testing, and not stay silent or say “this is just the way it is” when districts blatantly break the law.

On a personal note, while timelines were followed by EI and the district, we still ended up needed to seek relief from the BSEA when my daughter turned 3.  She didn’t have autism. but she did have a few areas of signifigant need.  I remain convinced the quality EI, coupled the the excellent integrated preschool services, we were able to obtain, for her helped her make progress.  In fact she did so well, she only needed  a related services IEP when she went to kindergarten.  This is another example of special education working.

Families should have to deal with advocating in EI and with their school district simultaneously.  It’s not fair and it doesn’t necessarily bode well for long-term relationships between parents and districts who could have 19 years to be working together.

It should be easier, but with both entities blaming the other, I fear nothing will get fixed.  The only people who get left behind are little kids who need services.