In Rhode Island, we strongly believe that every young child should get off to the right start in life—a start where children and families are supported during the early years of development, a formative time that is crucial for bonding, socialization, and success. We want our infants and toddlers to be prepared for school so that their future is filled with unlimited possibilities. We also know that sometimes their development is compromised, and we have built a system that works to improve child and family development.
That is why for more than 30 years, Rhode Island has provided Early Intervention (EI), a free federal public education program offered through the state’s Executive Office of Health and Human Services. Early Intervention is for children under three years old who have or are at risk of a developmental delay or disability. Statewide, more than 4,100 infants and toddlers receive EI services.
In Warwick, the J. Arthur Trudeau Memorial Center’s EI program supports more than 275 children. Our highly trained, educated professionals work with each child and their family to develop an Individualized Family Service Plan that sets learning goals and identifies the services needed to achieve them.
Trudeau’s wide array of EI supports focus on the following important skills: physical and cognitive; communication; self-help; adaptive; and social emotional. Our specialists also connect families with supportive resources including childcare and preschool programs.
Early Intervention is essential to our youngest and most vulnerable children. When children under three-years old who are experiencing developmental challenges do not receive timely, high-quality services, they fall further behind. The brain grows rapidly, starting before birth and continuing into early childhood. Early Intervention is crucial to the children who need it.
Unfortunately, Trudeau’s ability to serve Warwick and the surrounding area’s young children is now threatened. We are unable to offer competitive wages in comparison to other sectors, due to stagnant state reimbursement rates for Early Intervention services. These rates were initially set in 2002, cut in 2009, and have not been increased for over 20 years.
As competition across New England builds for high-quality professional staff, Early Intervention simply cannot keep up. The result is the loss of Early Intervention professionals to schools, outpatient practices, and a variety of other higher-paying positions.
Due to reduced staff, the Trudeau Center and EI providers across Rhode Island have been forced to implement a state-run referral process, which essentially places new children and families in need of services, on a state-run wait list. These children cannot wait. The window of opportunity to make a difference in their lives is closing with each day that passes without services.
Fortunately, Governor McKee, Speaker Shekarchi, and Senate President Ruggerio have recognized the crisis that is facing EI providers. Earlier this month, the General Assembly passed, and the Governor signed into law, legislation authorizing $3.64 million in federal CARES Act funding to assist providers to recruit and retain specialists, avoid closures, and provide continued services to Rhode Island’s children with developmental needs.
These funds have been helpful to “keep the lights on” for EI providers during an incredibly challenging time. However, this is one-time, temporary funding, which mainly serves the purpose of replacing lost revenue. The real long-term solution to reinvesting in EI will be increasing reimbursement rates to a level that truly supports our EI programs.
As the General Assembly gets back to work crafting a budget for 2023, with the benefit of over $1 billion in federal stimulus funds and a $600 million state budget surplus, now is the time to invest in increased reimbursement rates for Early Intervention providers so they can sustain these critical services for our state’s youngest learners.
This is a smart investment that will truly pay dividends for Rhode Island’s children for generations to come.
Joseph Robitaille is Vice President of Children's Services at the J. Arthur Trudeau Memorial Center.