Children's agencies finding way to do screening
Florida children's agencies are finding ways to screen for developmental delays in infants and toddlers, despite the fact that few communities have the money to do it, and it hasn't been a funding priority for state lawmakers.
They screen for vision, hearing, dental, cognitive, mental health and developmental problems that, untreated, can change the course of children's lives – and their families' – for the worse.
Solutions range from a community-funded monthly screening in Hillsborough County to a twice-yearly effort in Leon County. Rural Jefferson County held its first screening in late March, serving 35 children.
In Tampa, 65-75 children are screened monthly, supported by an ad valorem tax dedicated to the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County, a children's services council. Staffing and in-kind dollars come from the Hillsborough public schools. Faith based organizations donate the space. For the last three years, the Early Childhood Council of Hillsborough County has received about $20,000 in grants and awards for developmental screening.
"It's like that old transmission commercial: 'Pay me now or pay me later,'" said Stephen Martaus, director of the Early Childhood Council. "If we put enough money into early learning and early intervention, then those kids are going to be more successful in school, be better citizens, be less inclined to drop out, be less inclined to commit crimes and more inclined to be productive citizens."
In Tampa, developmental screening began in 1986, with 23 children served in the first year.
While taxpayers are footing part of the bill in Tampa, in other parts of the state, absent significant funding from the government, much of the screening is done by volunteers working for free and with few resources.
"It's really a community effort to do the right thing," said Angel Trejo, a retired district administrator of the Florida Department of Children and Families for twelve counties in the Big Bend, who now works with local children's programs as a volunteer.
Eighteen percent of children have some type of developmental delay, Trejo said, and of those "we miss 50 percent. Some studies say we're missing 60 to 80 percent."
In Tallahassee, staffers from 20 children's agencies donate their time, Children's Medical Services donates space and at a recent screening, three dentists saw children for free. The group screens at least 50 children every six months.
"The earlier we can find children that are having some challenges, the better off and the more prepared they'll be for kindergarten," said Susan Ellis, a clinical social worker who helped start Leon County's all-volunteer screening in 2008.
Ellis said providers are learning that children who get early intervention have fewer behavior problems once they start kindergarten.
"One of my goals as an infant mental health provider is to reduce the number of children in the juvenile justice system," she said. "Because a lot of these children that aren't getting services early on, usually we find when they're ten or twelve, having problems, that they've been having problems since they were two years old but they've just never been identified or treated."
Now the screening concept is spreading statewide.
Last fall the Florida Developmental Disabilities Council began a three-year initiative to develop a system of developmental screenings for children from birth to age five. The project springs from the Florida Children and Youth Cabinet's strategic plan, and the grant is funded by the federal U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration on Developmental Disabilities.
According to FDDC Director Debra Dowds, the goals for the grant's first year included researching other states with higher screening rates; researching Florida's system; identifying the screening and assessment tools used in Florida; and convening a statewide task force of pediatricians, parents and providers. She said the task force is about to release its first year's report.
Asked if the state's economic woes will be a hurdle to delivering more services, Dowds said, "Maybe, but we're hoping to build a case as to why we need to spend the money."
But Ted Granger, president of the United Way of Florida, said assessment is "just the first step. The next is referring children who need services, and we know there's a lack of services out there.
"If you assess a child and there's nowhere to send him, you really haven't accomplished a whole lot."
16 April 2012