Families of young children say state failing to provide special education support
It’s been almost a year since Megan Weber’s son received the special education support he needs. For a 3-year-old, that’s a significant chunk of development time.
Weber’s son was diagnosed with autism just before his 3rd birthday. He is required by law to receive roughly four hours of support per week from a special education teacher, plus periodic support from a speech pathologist.
“He has to make a connection (with someone), and he has difficulty regulating his emotions,” Weber told the Maine Morning Star. “If he’s not connected to the person who’s coming in to see him once or twice a week, it’s harder for them to steer him if he’s having a breakdown.”
Weber, a supply chain manager who lives in North Waterboro, has been “back and forth for a little less than a year” with the state, but has largely come up empty in efforts to find service providers who can help her son.
‘And then…nothing happened’
Students in public school programs who require special education services are legally required to receive them under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a federal law. To receive that assistance, those children’s families work with a child psychologist to draft an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, a formal document managed by the state’s Department of Education.
It’s up to Child Development Services (CDS), a branch of the state Department of Education, to find service providers who can meet the needs of the IEP, which can span special education, occupational therapy, speech therapy and other needs.
But since the pandemic, children have not been getting the developmental educational services that they are required to be given by the state of Maine, according to Beth Gachowski.
Gachowski owns and operates Arundel Children’s Garden, an early childhood program in Kennebunkport that has capacity for 24 kids—including Weber’s son.
Weber’s son and another 3-year-old child have been in her program since they were babies. As they developed, Gachowski and the children’s parents noticed that there were developmental differences, which turned out to be autism. She directed the families to Child Development Services to hash out the details of the IEP.
“And then…nothing happened,” Gachowski said.
Gachowski has a masters in Early Childhood Education, and has worked as an educator or daycare provider for 30 years. She moved to Maine in 2001, and opened Arundel Children’s Garden in 2019. She knows the drill—helping families out with their IEPs is part of the process, and there’s always some lag time with receiving services because of the process and paperwork involved. But since the pandemic, that process can now take years.
“A year in the life of a 3-year-old is a lot of developmental time,” Gachowski said. “It has a huge impact on these children and their ability.”
A staffer from the regional Child Development Services office in Arundel said they were not authorized to comment. The state director did not return an email or phone call Monday.
Gachowski doesn’t want to disparage Child Development Services. She believes they genuinely can’t find people to do the work. Gachowski spoke with her local legislator about the issue, but they did not respond by publication.
“I’m just trying to highlight that this is a very serious problem,” she said. “They say they don’t have providers, they don’t have speech pathologists, they don’t have occupational therapists—I’m sure that’s true. And I don’t really have the answers.”
But Gachowski is positioned to witness the strain the issue puts on families with children with special education needs. In Weber’s son’s case, the special education teacher that was assigned to him by CDS was unavailable to go see him.
“He was barely getting maybe a half hour a week,” Weber said. The speech pathologist they’d hired went on maternity leave, and then support providers went on break during the summer. For Weber, it was maddening to watch her kid not get the services he needed.
“He’s at that early intervention stage,” she said. With the right support, “he can thrive.”
Those two moms are working moms who have spent an exorbitant amount of time trying to get their kids what they need. Not every kid has that mom. What’s happening to those kids who don’t have that mom?
After months of waiting, Weber decided “enough was enough.” She pestered Child Development Services, sending a “stern email” demanding they revisit the case. With the agency’s help, they arranged a program to repurpose a teacher from Gachowski’s daycare as an education tech, paying them as a special education teacher.
It was a useful fix, but not a sustainable one.
“We burnt out a teacher, and it’s already very hard to find early education teachers,” Gachowski said.
According to Weber, Child Development Services was very apologetic and sympathetic to her cause. While the situation is an urgent one for her and her family, she recognizes that the problem is bigger.
The process of diagnosing and getting Weber’s son his IEP was “smooth,” she said. The family worked with CDS and a child psychologist to craft the plan, and found the process to be exactly what he needed.
“If they’d actually had the resources to implement that plan, that would have been great,” Weber said.
It was after his IEP was fully written that they saw a struggle with resources.
“The resources weren’t lacking in regards to getting the diagnosis or writing the IEP itself, but the actual people that were implementing the services,” Weber said.
Circumventing the wait list
Better times are ahead for Weber’s son. He was just placed in a special education focused preschool this month. Though getting him there will require Weber and her husband, a welder, to rearrange their work schedules, she feels a lot better.
“It took a long time,” she said. “It was so hard to get into this special education preschool because of the waiting list.”
While many industries have faced staffing issues, Gachowski believes that the issue has been exacerbated by families who circumvent the state program, paying privately for service providers, making it harder for Child Development Services to find personnel.
“We are in Kennebunkport,” Gachowski says of the wealthy coastal Maine town. “Some of the kids who have gotten services have gotten them because the parents went out and found them and paid for them independently, which is not supposed to be what happens. People aren’t choosing to have a contract with Child Development Services in a way that providers used to.”
Working with Weber to try to find support for her son makes Gachowski wonder what other parents might be struggling with the same issue, in less resourced parts of the state.
“Those two moms are working moms who have spent an exorbitant amount of time trying to get their kids what they need,” Gachowski said. “Not every kid has that mom. What’s happening to those kids who don’t have that mom?”