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Women and Families: Early intervention...

Women and Families: Early intervention seen as the most impactful of investments

By: Sarah Ulmer - February 2, 2023

The Mississippi Senate study committee on women, children and families looks to ramp up early childhood intervention program.

Early childhood intervention has been considered by experts as one of the most impactful ways to direct the course of a young child’s life. Such services include health services, physical and occupational therapy, language services, vision services and more.

According to information shared by experts during Mississippi Senate hearings in the fall, the state of Mississippi should be serving upwards of 10,000 children, based on the national average. However, the state is only currently serving 1,592 in early intervention programs.

State Senator Nicole Boyd

“That was extremely frightening, but what was more frightening about that was the data that was presented by a Nobel Prize winning economist who looks at the dollars that you invest in education and various levels. Your most efficacious dollar or ROI is when you invest it in that early intervention,” said State Senator Nicole Boyd.

Boyd is chairing the Senate committee tasked with exploring ways to better serve women, children and families in the post-Roe environment.

The state’s current early childhood intervention program is called Mississippi First Steps Early Intervention Program (MSFSEIP). It aims to provide early identification, services and support for the development of young children under its Part C programing. The program is largely funded by state appropriations. It is overseen by the Mississippi State Department of Health under the federal Part C of the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA).

According to the 2020 Kids Count factbook, 27 percent of Mississippi children (190,000) live in poverty and 34 percent (242,000) have parents who lack secure employment. First Steps notes that enrollment is reported as low.

The program’s funding in FY 2021 was set at just over $4.2 million with the state contributing 23.3 percent or $1.3 million. If enrollment were increased, First Steps estimated it could reduce future costs for special education, a Part B programing. The estimated special education services per child enrolled in Mississippi is $6,152.

Senator Boyd has presented a bill this year, the “Mississippi Early Intervention Pilot Project Act,” which would eventually create a pilot program within the T.K. Martin Center at Mississippi State University. If passed, the legislation would first implement a task force to study the early intervention system in Mississippi and report back to the Legislature before December of 2023, prior to any launch of a program.

The premise of the legislation – SB 2167 – centers around determining if the state’s current approach to early intervention is effective. If it is not, Senator Boyd says the Legislature aims to fix it.

Over the summer and fall, Boyd’s committee heard from experts in childhood development, the medical community, and education leaders as well as others who shared insight on how the state can improve services for this population.

Senator Boyd said the task force will go in greater depth to determine how to make this a better program, particularly for children with a range of disabilities, that are younger than three.

“We know we should be serving at least 10 to 15 percent of children. This is an incredibly important program in the state that we can do a much better job with,” said Boyd. “The good news is we can do a better job.”

The bill sets forth that the goal of the task force is to develop a recommendation for the Legislature on reforming the current early intervention system and laws in Mississippi, with a goal of increasing access to services for children from birth to age three (3) through a robust First Steps Early Intervention Program.

“This is one of the largest returns on investments you can make with any education program. Many of these children who receive care in those zero to three programs will often not need special education services when they are older,” said Boyd.

The Senator shared her personal experience with early intervention, having a child who utilized those services many years ago when the program was operated more regionally.

“The impact that made on my child and on my family has been tremendous for my child. I see other families that participated in that program at the same time my child did, and I see what those children have done. They’re National Merit Scholars. They’re doing many things, just because they had a little bit of help very early in life,” said Boyd.

She believes early intervention is a large reason why those children went on to achieve high academic honors at their colleges and universities.

First Steps also reported in their January 2022 policy brief that insurance status directly impacted a child and their family’s access to such interventions. It was reported that physicians would first refer a child to a private intervention service, using MSFSEIP as a last resort.

Parents who had been referred to MSFSEIP reported delays in accessing service. These delays often times caused families not to be able to access services before the child’s eligibility ended (prior to turning three). The 2019 FSEIP report showed that 87 percent of participants in the program received timely service and 88 percent of eligible infants and toddlers did their IFSP meeting within the 45-day timeline required by the federal Part C program.

Boyd said Mississippi Senators learned in the fall hearings that there is a large need for more individuals who are licensed to serve in early intervention programs. She receives several phone calls weekly from individuals trying to find licensed therapists.

The problem centers around a few culprits, Senator Boyd said, including low reimbursement rates. While colleges and universities have increased output for those certified to work in this area, the retention of those professionals is low because they can earn much higher salaries in surrounding states. Mississippi’s reimbursement rates are the lowest in the country.

The last assessment on improvements for early intervention was in 2015 by the Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center (ECTA Center). The framework offered for improvement highlighted areas of governance, finance, workforce development and overall systemic changes.

The report encouraged more regular meetings to offer feedback among organizational, policy, agency and family stakeholders. It noted the need to utilize formal communication channels to inform providers about First Step updates and utilize the projection of financial resources needed as well as long-term benefits that program expansion would represent. The report also encouraged an increase in provider rates.

The Center addressed the social determinants that prevent families from receiving services and encouraged administration and policymakers to continue working together to obtain data to drive additional decision making.

At this point, no appropriation has been made for the pilot program. Senator Boyd said once reports are received from the task force, they will begin to craft legislation to make reforms.

The task force would be comprised of the House and Senate Chairmen of Public Health and Appropriations; two appointees made by the Lt. Governor; the State Health Officer; one designee in the First Steps Early Intervention Program; one faculty member from Social Science Research Center at MSU; one developmental-behavior pediatrician; one general pediatrician; one clinical psychologist; a school psychologists; an early intervention therapist; one family advocacy representative; a parent with current experience; and a faculty member from each of the universities.

If the bill becomes law, the task force will begin meeting within months.

About the Author(s)
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Sarah Ulmer

Sarah is a Mississippi native, born and raised in Madison. She is a graduate of Mississippi State University, where she studied Communications, with an emphasis in Broadcasting and Journalism. Sarah’s experience spans multiple mediums, including extensive videography with both at home and overseas, broadcasting daily news, and hosting a live radio show. In 2017, Sarah became a member of the Capitol Press Corp in Mississippi and has faithfully covered the decisions being made by leaders on some of the most important issues facing our state. Email Sarah: