How to Better Serve Latinx Children with Special Needs: A Conversation with Parents Helping Parents

Regional centers are private, nonprofit organizations that contract with the state to provide services to children and adults with developmental disabilities. The 21 centers serving 240,000 individuals statewide opened because of the 1978 Lanterman Act, legislation that aimed to give every individual the opportunity to live independently and maximize their potential.

As a whole, however, the system has struggled to provide services to Spanish-speaking families at the same rate it does to English-speaking ones. I asked Claudia Harty, community & family resources and disparity program manager at Parents Helping Parents, a San Jose-based organization that works to connect families with services, what could be done differently.  

This conversation, which took place via email, has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: What is the biggest obstacle preventing Spanish-speaking families from getting resources?

A: Not all of the information they need is shared in their primary language. Agencies have some information on their websites translated, but oftentimes when families try to access additional forms, surveys or other crucial information, it is not translated. The processes to access services can be long and confusing, and families do not always have the time to follow through because of their work obligations.

Wait times for services that agencies provide can be very long, so families give up. Transportation is another issue. Traveling to appointments…with their children with disabilities is difficult if they do not have a car or other transportation, …and most of the services are far away from them [and there is] no adequate support for childcare while they seek to obtain resources.

Q: I understand it isn’t just a question of getting less money, but it’s also that Spanish-speaking families get rejected more often for support in the first place. Do you agree?

A: They do not have the knowledge, language or advocacy skills to be prepared for discussions around services and do not know what is available for their children. They do not know if the information being presented to them is correct or complete and, consequently, are more accepting of the outcome. Spanish-speakers may not be asking for all the services their children are eligible for because they fear they will be identified as using a government service when applying for legal status. Professionals may not have the training and information specific to the families’ needs. Also, information may be too technical and not easily understood, even with an interpreter.

Q: What outreach strategies work well to reach underserved populations?

A: Partnering with another agency that is already established in the community and in which the people trust is one good strategy. Being culturally competent helps a lot. Because someone speaks Spanish doesn’t mean they understand the culture. Understanding the customs and culture is critical in connecting with the Latinx community. Going into their communities — to resource fairs, clinics, etc. and bringing the information to them — [is also a successful strategy].

Q: If you could change something immediately about the system, what would it be?

A: More focus on early intervention. Creating better advertising campaigns in all languages and using all the media platforms to inform all the community, not just Hispanics, about supports and services for individuals with disabilities. Make it mandatory that clinics, hospitals, physicians and schools provide the appropriate information about where to go to find support and simplify the systems of care for supporting people with disabilities.

Q: What else should I know?

A: Families want to help their loved ones with disabilities. Families have to make hard decisions about whether to help their child or pay the bills. Outside therapies/social skills classes are expensive and out of reach for low-income families. Single parents have a harder time. Parents need to learn how to advocate for themselves and their families.

The Department of Developmental Services has a listing of services available for children and adults with developmental disabilities. Regional Centers are listed here. For families with young children, the Family Resource Center Network of California  has a directory of centers that assist parents seeking regional center services for infants and toddlers. Family Voices of California, a statewide collaborative of parent-run centers, also has information and links to support organizations throughout the state for families of children with disabilities, including Spanish speakers. They can be reached at

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