By: Isaac Davison
Preschoolers with disabilities or development problems are waiting more than 100 days to get extra help – despite the Government’s commitment to cut wait times for support a year ago.
And the waiting list for early intervention has grown in the last year, against projections that it would be halved by funding increases for the sector.
That means more children with communications difficulties, development delays, or disabilities are waiting longer for specialist support which helps them learn and participate at home or in early childhood education.
The issue was singled out by the Government for attention in last year’s Budget, but Associate Education Minister Tracey Martin admitted to the Herald that not enough had been done.
“We put in $21.5m last year. It just hasn’t worked. It hasn’t been enough. We need system change as well as more money.”
When that four-year funding boost was announced in May, the average wait for an appointment was 74 days. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said at the time: “In the life of a 3 or 4-year old child who’s hungry to learn, that’s 74 days too long.”
The average waiting time is now 106 days, and in Wellington it is 178 days. That reverses a general trend of falling wait lists over the last five years.
Martin said at the Budget that the funding boost would halve the waiting list. But the list has actually risen to 2637 children, up from 2552 in the middle of last year.
Altogether Autism national manager Catherine Trezona said that while the Government was promising some important changes, the Budget funding had made no perceptible difference to children and families needing help.
“I am not surprised the wait times have gone up,” she said. “As soon as you realise you have a child with a difference you get used to wait times. You wait for diagnosis, you wait for services, you wait to be seen for everything. This is unfortunately very much part of the landscape.”
She said delayed support meant some children were stood down at early childhood centres because they could not be handled by staff. It also meant families were placed under unnecessary stress because their child’s development problems were not being address.
At the heart of the issue was a lack of trained staff and quality, specialist support, she said.
Martin agreed, but warned that there were multiple pressures which would take some time to address.
Demand for behavioural services had risen by 21 per cent since 2013, and demand for early intervention had jumped by 15 per cent since 2013. At the same time, these increases had been matched by an expanded workforce.
“Realistically we don’t have enough of these professionals,” the minister said.
“It takes three years to train a psychologist, five years to train a speech language therapist. We can’t just import all these people.”
There were major changes in the pipeline, including 600 more learning support co-ordinators from next year and a new delivery model which would be rolled out in most parts of the country by the end of the year.
National Party early childhood education spokeswoman Nicola Willis said the children in the waiting list were among New Zealand’s most needy and they deserved better.
“I’m sure many families and educators had their hopes raised by the Prime Minister’s announcement last year. Sadly, they have been let down.”
Martin said fixing the problem had a personal significance.
“As the mother of a son who needed speech language therapy, who couldn’t access it for 12 months (in 2005), I can appreciate what it’s like for the parent of the children because it impacts on their self-esteem, their ability to interact with others, and on their learning.”
Average wait times for early intervention:
• Tai Tokerau: 73 days
• Auckland: 101 days
• Waikato: 102 days
• Bay of Plenty/Waiariki: 123 days
• Hawke’s Bay/Tairawhiti: 98 days
• Taranaki/Whanganui/Manawatu: 128 days
• Wellington: 178 days
• Nelson/Marlborough/West Coast: 47 days
• Canterbury/Chatham Islands: 89 days
• Otago/Southland: 81 days
• National: 106 days
– Ministry of Education, April 2019
Source: NZ Herald