Stark Disparities Persist at Centers Serving Children with Special Needs

“Many of our families of color are not being made aware of the funding available for their loved ones so they can have a higher quality of life,” said Mary Lee, a parent advocate mentor at Special Needs Network in Los Angeles. Photo: Thinkstock

The amount of state funding given to a child with developmental disabilities varies wildly depending on where the child lives, according to a new report by Public Counsel, the nation’s largest pro bono law firm.

Regions with higher black and Latino populations receive lower funding than those with higher white and Asian populations, according to the report, which was funded by the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health.*

State funding for developmental disabilities is distributed through 21 regional centers. According to the report, the 10 regional centers that serve majority black and Latino clients on average authorize $3,887 less per client than the 11 regional centers that serve majority white and Asian clients ($15,238 vs. $19,125).

As a stark example, a client at Los Angeles’ South Central Regional Center, which serves a population that is 91 percent blacks and Latinos, receives on average nearly $8,000 less than a client at nearby Westside Regional Center, with a population of 45 percent blacks and Latinos.

The state Department of Developmental Service responded with a statement that regional centers received $11 million this year to implement best practices and try new ideas to reduce disparities. This includes expanding outreach to underserved populations and giving cultural sensitivity training to staff.

“Reducing disparities in underserved populations is a priority for the department,” said an email statement provided by Nancy Lungren, the department’s assistant director for communications.

Brian Capra, a staff attorney who wrote the Public Counsel report, said the main reason for the disparities is the budget allocation method used by the Department of Developmental Services. The department gives money to each regional center based on what it spent the year before. The clients at the primarily white and Asian regional centers tend to be more outspoken about getting services than those at the primarily black and Latino centers, he said.

Regional centers offer services such as behavioral management assistance, counseling, respite for caregivers and transportation.

He also said families whose primary language is not English face barriers in understanding what services are available. Some regional centers are not good about providing a list of what those services are, Capra said. For instance, a family might not know that their child could have a behavioral aid to accompany them to class and help them stay on task.

Mary Lee, a parent advocate mentor at Special Needs Network in Los Angeles, said parents tell her they have a hard time communicating with some regional centers and getting staff members to call them back.

“Many of our families of color are not being made aware of the funding available for their loved ones so they can have a higher quality of life,” she said.

The disparities are particularly disturbing as they are virtually unchanged since the problem was exposed by the Los Angeles Times five years ago, Capra said. The newspaper series led to a state task force that came up with dozens of recommendations to reduce the disparities in 2013.

“Nothing’s happened and that’s a hugely frustrating thing,” said Capra, who was on the task force.

Capra believes the task force report has languished because the chief political champion – former Sen. Darrell Steinberg – left the legislature and because there have been several leadership changes at the state Department of Developmental Services, which funds the regional centers.

As a solution, Public Counsel and Special Needs Network are supporting Assembly Bill 1610, which would create a task force to develop a new budget and allocation method based on client need. The bill would also restore funding for non-medical therapies, recreational services and respite supports that were cut in 2009. Those services were used more frequently by Latino, black and Asian families than white families, Capra said.

*The story has been updated to reflect that the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Heath  provided financial support for the Public Counsel report. The foundation is also a funder of the California Health Report.

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