Audit faults program for disabled children

A South Carolina program that aids infants and toddlers who have disabilities is not reaching enough children and doesn't properly monitor those who provide the services, a state audit reported Wednesday.

The Legislative Audit Council report says finding children with problems before the age of 3 is critical so they can get help that makes a difference.

"Early intervention services can reduce the extent of developmental delays for children and can also help children acquire compensatory skills" such as deaf children learning sign language, the report said.

The program, known as BabyNet, is a joint state-federal effort to identify children with developmental problems with speech, hearing, vision, motor skills, or social-emotional skills and provide them with the services they need.

The BabyNet program is run by the state agency First Steps to School Readiness, which helps children prepare for school.

While crediting BabyNet with making some improvement in the past 20 months that First Steps has run it, the audit said many changes should be made.

For example, the report found that the largest number of referrals to the program in South Carolina came from physicians' offices, the Department of Social Services and children's parents, but said more information about the program needs to get out.

The report recommended using simple methods such as posters, brochures, billboards, radio and television public service announcements, in addition to making updates to its Web site. The report said the program is too decentralized and the General Assembly should consider allowing changes.

For example, the audit said "BabyNet providers have not been adequately monitored to ensure that services have been delivered as required." The program does not have a comprehensive method to measure the performance of those providers, the report said.

The audit also said the General Assembly set up a decentralized method of providing funds for BabyNet, which hampers First Step's ability to monitor the program and its providers.

"The General Assembly should appropriate all BabyNet funding directly to First Steps to increase accountability for the lead agency with regard to partner agencies and providers," the report said. The General Assembly had asked the council to conduct the audit.

Any child from birth to three years of age is eligible for services. They can get diagnostic services, speech therapy, physical therapy, audiology services, occupational therapy, nutrition services, health and nursing services, the report said.

The report said there are about 188,600 children from birth to 3 years of age in South Carolina and about 6,700 children were served through the BabyNet program in the past year.

The audit said South Carolina served 2.38 percent of its children from birth to age three in 2008, compared to a national average of 2.66 percent. The top state, Hawaii, served 6.74 percent of its children in 2008, while bottom-ranked Georgia measured only 1.38 percent in the same year.

Once needs are identified, BabyNet cases are managed by state agencies such as the Department of Disabilities and Special Needs, the South Carolina School for the Deaf and the Blind, the Department of Mental Health and the Department of Social Services. Services are provided through a combination of those agencies, nongovernmental agencies and individual providers that contract with the state government for the services.

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