With Disruption of Supports, Families of Children with Developmental Concerns Under Stress

By Alexandra Parma

Director of Policy Research & Development

For a child with a developmental delay or disability, timely and accessible intervention services can be critical to that child’s wellbeing, as well as that of her parents or caregivers. COVID-19 has disrupted services for many families, compounding the stress related to changes to employment, child care, and overall routines. As a result, rates of stress, depression, and anxiety during the pandemic are significantly higher in households where a young child has a disability, according to new data released by the Rapid Assessment of Pandemic Impact on Development in Early Childhood project.

Since the beginning of survey data collection, levels of distress in families of children with disabilities have been elevated. In other words, these families’ stress levels are not dropping as households adjust to life during the pandemic.

Their levels of stress may be related to having less access to services for their children. Challenges in service connection were recently highlighted in a webinar with San Andreas Regional Center (SARC), which coordinates Early Start (California’s Early Intervention program) for Monterey, San Benito, Santa Clara, and Santa Cruz counties. SARC staff noted that they have seen a significant decrease in Early Start referrals and enrollment during the pandemic. Part of this is due to overall declines in well-child visits where providers would typically screen for developmental concerns and make referrals. In addition, decreases are also due to families’ hesitation to participate in both remote eligibility assessments and intervention services, according to SARC staff.

Although in-person requirements to establish eligibility for services have been waived as a result of the pandemic, access to intervention services depends on the ability and resources of providers to offer them remotely. This makes it likely that services are more challenging to access than they were before the pandemic, when the early intervention system was already very complex and hard to navigate for families.

As the pandemic lengthens, it is clear children with developmental concerns and their families need more support. Part of this support is letting families know that many of the services they need are still open for business, as well as providing them with the reassurance that they can access supports in a way that keeps their families safe from COVID-19.

Although operating at various levels of remoteness, regional centers and health care providers are urging families to stay connected. In addition, local Help Me Grow systems are stepping up to provide additional support and guidance for families in the 30 California counties where they operate. Help Me Grow call centers continue to provide developmental screening and make referrals over the phone. In addition, many are shifting in-person navigation supports to remote platforms and are learning how to foster relationships with families from afar.

At the heart of supporting families during this stressful time are the relationships that staff of Help Me Grow, regional centers, and other family supports like home visiting build with families. Not only do those relationships help families navigate the challenges the pandemic has added to getting services for their child, they can help reduce stress and feelings of isolation, improving family well-being overall.

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