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Utah families benefit from disability services but funding remains stagnant

Shelby Stanger and Claira
JoLynne Lyon
JoLynne Lyon
Shelby Stanger and Claira

Overwhelmingly, families that have received services say they are grateful for the help with their little ones. But Utah providers struggle to provide quality services on funding that has remained stagnant since 2017.  

"I lost one to the school district, and they said they were getting $20,000 a year more, and summers off. I had nothing to say," said Crystal Ghica.

Crystal Ghica directs early intervention at Root for Kids in Washington and San Juan counties.

IDEA Part C services are also known as the Early Intervention for Infants and Toddlers with Disabilities. It’s been seven years since the Utah Legislature increased funding for Utah’s Part C Early Intervention Programs. Since then, inflation has hit Utah hard, and professionals are leaving the field.

"I just don't have it in my budget to give them all that kind of a raise," said Ghica.

If there’s anything early interventionists don’t lack, it’s passion. But, like everyone else, they need to pay the bills.

“When I can make about $20,000 more a year… at the neighborhood school than I can make for Early Intervention, it's a problem,” said Tammy Edwards.

Tammy Edwards used to work for South East Early Intervention, a provider in Emery, Grand and Carbon counties. She and Ghica have something in common: their interest in early intervention started because they are parents of children who needed the services. But Edwards still needs to take care of family expenses.

“I am required to meet her needs, and I can't do it on the pay scale that we were given with Early Intervention. … I would have loved to stay because I feel like I could be an asset to them, and I love working with this group of people,” said Edwards.

So what happens when professionals leave?

"What it ends up being, honestly, is we will get them a year or two out of maybe their first year out of grad school, which means we also have to, if it's a speech therapist, we have to help them through their clinical fellowship, which means they're not 100% on their own yet. So we have to have also a mentor that can dedicate some time to helping get them up and running nowadays. Most grad students come out with quite a bit of debt, like education is just more expensive than it used to be. They're also requiring higher degrees. So a physical therapist used to be a master's degree and now is most commonly a doctorate degree. … And so that means they just come with a higher expectation of a higher wage, too," said Ghica.

"I think our longest licensed therapist that we have right now has been here about five years, and the others have been here, you know, all less than that," said Ghica.

Utah funds the Baby Watch Early Intervention Program for 1.7 hours of services per month per child. The national average is 4.7 hours.

"I wouldn't have even known where to begin. You get a baby that doesn't have special needs and you don't know what you're doing, let alone, like someone that needs a little extra help," said Shelby Stanger.

Shelby Stanger, a mother in Box Elder County, said she received wonderful services from the Up to 3 Program at the Institute for Disability Research, Policy & Practice.

But her family also supplemented early intervention services with trips to Shriner’s hospital in Salt Lake City.

"I do think that families do need the therapy services more than once or twice a month. I think it would make such a huge difference, and I know that there aren't families that have as much time as we have," said Stanger.

"In some cases, you know that they really need more and you have to help the family find additional resources outside of their home, which research shows that in the native or in the natural environment is where the child learns best. And when we have to send them into a clinic or somewhere else, we know that that's not the best situation, but sometimes that's all we can do," said Ghica.