January 20, 2017 - 9:00 PM
OKANAGAN - Kamloops mother Teresa Martin knew she had a problem when her son turned three and could only speak a handful of words. But that problem soon gave way to another: Getting Hunter the therapy he needed before he aged out of the system — a problem one advocacy group says is affecting thousands of children across B.C.
Because Hunter was four by the time his delays manifested, he only had a year to get support through the Early Childhood Development program before the cut-off at age five.
Teresa and Sean Cameron, Hunter's dad, got Hunter on the list for speech therapy right away in Salmon Arm, where they were living at the time. Hunter’s older brother had already benefited from support through the Shuswap Children’s Association, and Teresa and Sean knew that early intervention meant everything. But they had to wait.
“I didn’t expect it to be as long as it was,” Teresa says. “When I got Hunter on the list, I thought, okay, a month. I was really shocked — it was a year.”
Once he finally got an assessment and began receiving speech therapy, things improved for Hunter, Teresa says. But she believes he’d be much farther along developmentally if he hadn’t been forced to wait a year.
In addition to the one-year window before Hunter aged out, his parents also had work their way around funding-based rules that prevented him from accessing services. To qualify for support, Hunter had to be in a licensed daycare or preschool. They ended up putting him in daycare a few days a week just to get the support he needed.
Now, Hunter is five, in Kindergarten, and no longer eligible for support from the Early Childhood Development program. Instead, he’s supposed to get extra help from the school system, but Teresa says resources disappeared when he turned five.
“Everything stopped,” Teresa says. “I think a lot of kids are like him, they just get left.”
Due to overstretched resources, she says priority is given to children with more severe developmental delays, and kids like Hunter, who still need help, are left hanging.
“They’re at the bottom of the list,” Teresa says.
Hunter’s little sister, Arizona, is also struggling with speech delays, and has been on a wait list for more than a year.
“I never thought I would have to deal with these struggles, that it would be so hard to get help if it was needed,” Teresa says.
Jason Gordon, with the B.C. Association for Child Development and Intervention, says cases like Hunter’s and Arizona's are common.
“It’s typical for families to wait for half a year, and many stories are out there where families are waiting more than a year,” Gordon says. “That’s a huge chunk of their lives where they’re missing out.”
Once a child ‘ages out’ of Early Childhood Development on their fifth birthday, support services become the responsibility of the school system, and resources are much more scarce there, Gordon says. Additionally, they are only offered in the school environment, whereas the early childhood program brings it into the home, as well as preschool and daycare.
If a child with developmental delays enters the school system without having received any prior therapies, they’re at a significant disadvantage, Gordon says.
“When they don’t have that support they’re really behind in the trajectory of the rest of their lives. They’re always in catch up mode,” Gordon says.
His association represents agencies across the Okanagan and Kamloops that are contracted by the provincial government to deliver services and advocates on their behalf.
“The stories we hear is they don’t have enough resources to do the job effectively. They’re having to water down their service level, prioritize referrals, so families are ending up waiting an awfully long time,” Gordon says.
Provincial funding for speech, occupational therapy and physiotherapy for children has essentially been frozen since 2009, Gordon says.
The association is pushing the government to increase funding levels so more therapists can be hired to deal with the backlog of case files.
“If children have these supports, they have the opportunity to reach their full developmental potential,” Gordon says.
The association has profiled a number of families living in the Okanagan, Shuswap and Kamloops areas who are dealing with these struggles.
“We’re trying to increase the general public’s awareness of what these families go through,” he says.
The association represents the Vernon Child Development Centre in Vernon, the Shuswap Children's Development Association in the Salmon Arm area, the Thompson Nicola Family Resource Society in the Kamloops area, the OSNS Child & Youth Development Centre in the Penticton area, and Starbright Children’s Development Centre in Kelowna.
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