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Preschool Kids Struggle to Get Special-Ed Services Under New DOE Policy

By Julie Shapiro | September 24, 2012 7:20am

NEW YORK — Alexandra Berger thought she had done everything right.

The Park Slope mother of 3-year-old triplets, two of whom have developmental delays, spent the spring and summer researching therapists for her tots and lining up a fall schedule of sessions to help them catch up to their peers.

But at the end of August, just one week before the city-funded therapies were scheduled to start, Berger got a call saying the Department of Education had denied the contracts.

"We were all set to go," said Berger, 43, who had meticulously arranged the family's naptime and preschool schedule to squeeze in appointments with occupational, physical and speech therapists. "Then I got the call, and we had to start from scratch."

Berger is just one of dozens of parents across the city who were left scrambling and confused this month after the Department of Education changed its policy on providing special-education services for preschoolers.

The city has long paid staffing agencies and independent therapists to work with tens of thousands of 3- to 5-year-olds who have special needs and developmental delays, with the goal of preparing the youngsters for mainstream kindergarten classes.

In the past, many families found therapists for their children themselves, based on recommendations from other parents and considerations like scheduling and geography.

But this year, for the first time, the city began enforcing a requirement that all families first try going through large agencies, like Omni or Sunbelt Staffing, to find therapists, with the intention of streamlining the process and saving money, advocates said.

However, many parents like Berger only learned of the change after they had already carefully vetted and made their own arrangements with independent therapists.

And then, when the parents tried working with the staffing agencies, some waited weeks for their calls to be returned. Others were assigned to therapists far away from their homes, parents and advocates said.

"I was nauseated for three weeks until they figured everything out," said Berger, who was finally allowed to go back to the therapists she had originally chosen for her two young sons, after the agencies proved unable to provide the services her children needed.

"It was very frustrating."

For other families, though, the struggle is still ongoing, as parents wait for therapies that were supposed to start in the first week of September.

"We're hearing from too many families that their children's preschool services were not in place at the beginning of the school year," said Randi Levine, a lawyer with Advocates for Children, which supports disadvantaged children in New York City.

"Families have gone several weeks without receiving those vital services," she added. "In some cases we're hearing about, the parents haven't heard from the provider agency and haven't heard from the Department of Education. They're left wondering who's going to provide the services."

An online petition slamming the delays and the city's policy changes has gathered nearly 3,000 signatures in the past week and a half, and parents and therapists are planning a major rally at City Hall on Sept. 30.

Leslie Grubler, founding director of United New York Early Intervention and Special Education Providers With Parents as Partners, which is organizing the rally, said she has heard from dozens of upset parents over the past few weeks.

"They're in limbo," Grubler said. "They don't know what to do or who to call."

Grubler is also concerned about the impact of the city's new policy on independent therapists, who are now being forced to join large agencies and accept pay cuts if they want to continue working with preschoolers.

A representative of Omni acknowledged that it paid therapists less than they could make as independent contractors, but said it is better for children to receive standardized treatments overseen by a large agency.

The Omni representative, who declined to give her name, also said the agency is doing its best to meet all families' needs and blamed the delays on Department of Education officials, who she claimed had no idea what it was getting into in making the policy change.

"They are overwhelmed," the Omni representative said. "They were not prepared for this."

Further complicating matters, the Department of Education released a statement Sept. 14 saying the city would allow preschool families to stick with their original assigned therapists this year as part of the transition to using large agencies.

"DOE remains committed to fulfilling all students' related service requirements," the Department of Education said in a statement. "We will continue to provide services using DOE staff, contracted agencies and RSAs [for independent therapists] where necessary. Our objective in negotiating our new contracts was to increase the availability of services, expand geographic areas of coverage, speed the process of provider assignment, and improve service quality."

But many families said they've already made alternative arrangements, and have gotten conflicting information from different levels of the DOE.

They also fear that while many parents eventually got the therapists they wanted for their children, those who need help may still be getting lost in the bureaucracy.

"I'm extremely worried with what's going on," said a mother of twin boys in Prospect Heights. "It's not resolved fully yet."

The mother, who requested anonymity, said her nearly 4-year-old sons were born severely premature at just 27 weeks and require a dozen therapy sessions per week to help with everything from eating to playing.

But just before the fall therapy sessions were supposed to begin, the mother was told that the DOE had denied the contracts because the city had never received the correct paperwork, she said. 

One of the private agencies who she was assigned to by the DOE wanted her to travel to Williamsburg and lower Manhattan for her kids' therapies, after she had already worked out a much more convenient schedule with a sensory gym in Bay Ridge, she said.

Finally, this week, it appeared that the city would allow the boys to receive services in Bay Ridge after all — but the mother said she still couldn't relax.

"We are in the hands of the DOE," she said. "We are afraid."

Families that are still waiting for preschool special education services can email the Department of Education at relatedservices@schools.nyc.gov. Advocates for Children recommends that parents include the child's name, date of birth, New York City ID number, Committee on Preschool Special Education administrator, a description of the problem and a description of what they have done so far to try to resolve the problem.