First Steps Program Revitalized - August 28, 2006

Eighteen months ago, Dawn Carlson thought First Steps, Indiana’s program serving infants and toddlers with disabilities and developmental delays, might be ending. Today, she’s delighted that the program is still here and going strong. After twenty years serving Indiana’s youngest citizens, the program faced little support from the highest state offices. “All that changed because of three key factors that the “powers-that-be” failed to recognize. First, we will always have young children who are born with disabilities or who, for a variety of reasons have some level of delay in their development. Second, we have many committed service providers who were willing to stay in the program, serving children, despite worries that they wouldn’t have jobs in the near future. Third, and most important, we have so many families who were being served who became strong advocates for their own children and every child being served and they weren’t afraid to make their voices heard. This is a program that has nothing to do with partisan politics. It has everything to do with making sure that our youngest and most developmentally vulnerable children have the best possible start in life. It just makes sense – personally and financially for the state of Indiana.”

Carlson, who helps coordinate First Steps services throughout eleven counties in west Central Indiana, has seen the difference the program makes in the lives of children. “It’s amazing to see what developmental support can do for a child who needs those services. It’s equally amazing to see the difference that support can make in the lives of every member of that family.” As the parent of a young man with disabilities, Carlson often wonders what her son’s life might be like today if he had had the benefit of a program like First Steps when he was under three years of age.

Providing a range of services, tailored to meet the developmental needs of eligible children, has been the goal of First Steps since the initial pilot programs began throughout the state in 1986. Over the years, the program has grown and modified to become one of the leading “birth to three” programs in the nation, working to coordinate the wide array of existing services that can serve children and families and investing in creating new services that fill in the identified gaps.

“We’ve worked hard in Indiana to learn from experience and research and not reinvent the wheel,” Carlson noted. “I really believe we’ve managed to build and continue to support a program that is both family-centered and fiscally responsible.” Indiana leads the nation in tapping into financial resources that already exist and putting both federal and state dollars into supplying the services that aren’t available elsewhere.

Changes in the program over the last 18 months have been designed to reduce costs with as little disruption as possible to eligible children and families. One of those changes has been a “tightening” of the eligibility criteria, more closely aligned to what other states require. “While Indiana’s eligibility standard has been raised in an effort to streamline the program for the neediest children, we still have one of the broadest definitions of eligibility in the country. I think that will pay off for all Hoosiers in the long run as we are able to meet the developmental needs of children earlier, lessening the need to provide more costly services as children get older and enter special education or adult services. It’s hard to bring it down to dollars and cents, but if we don’t keep an eye on the bottom line, we won’t have a program at all to provide the developmental boost that many children need.” Past research has shown that for every dollar spent in providing services early, between five and seven dollars are saved later.

Carlson noted that some obstacles still remain in building a strong delivery system for Indiana’s infants and toddlers. “Many communities haven’t gotten the word that First Steps is still here and growing strong. Some programs aren’t making referrals like they did in the past. We’re working to help them understand that First Steps is still identifying and serving children. We’re also working hard to recruit additional providers, but there are never enough and we worry that some children won’t get the therapeutic services they need. We have so many terrific therapists who often take on work in First Steps in addition to their other jobs in therapy clinics and school districts. We also have many providers and therapists who have made working in First Steps their primary professional role. We’re always looking for new providers and would welcome the chance to bring additional Developmental Therapists, Occupational Therapists, Physical Therapists and Speech – Language Pathologists into the system.” Carlson also noted that they are seeking Psychologists, Nurses and Social Workers to help round out the provider pool.

“We’re still here and excited about the direction First Steps is moving,” Carlson noted. “We have a lot of people to thank, especially all the parents who cared enough about all of Indiana’s children to make saving the program a personal priority. How can we lose when those folks are a part of our team?”

First Steps is available in every Indiana County. For more information about the First Steps program in west central Indiana, to make a referral or to find out more about becoming a provider, contact First Steps of West Central Indiana by calling, toll free,1-877-860-0413 or emailing firststepswestcentral@yahoo.com .

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