Heeding Special Needs
Taking care in finding care for disabled kids in Northern Virginia
By Christina Poole
The first time a parent sends a child to daycare is both a test and a hallmark for parents and their progeny. Compound the emotional challenge with issues surrounding the care of a special-needs child, and one can only imagine the battle parents of such children face. In fact, many parents choose not to, according to Debbie Stachkunas, a Prince William parent. “Moms of special-needs kids will stay at home because of fear,” she says, speaking from the experience of finding care for three of her own such children. The fear that few can truly manage the needs of a disabled child often paralyzes parents into keeping the child home.
Yet some parents, such as Sheila Barnett and her husband of King William County have no other option: “If the daycare hadn’t taken [my son] I don’t know what I would have done.”
Where to Start?
Kerry White of Bristow is the parent of a medically fragile child with very special needs. “One of my biggest concerns for my son in daycare was his feeding,” she notes. “He needed one-on-one spoon feeding during the day.” She managed to find him a facility that allowed for a Medicaid-funded nurse to attend to his individual needs. He soon outgrew that daycare, however. When White wanted her son to move up with his peers at the center, she found that they didn’t offer the same opportunities for individualized care at higher age groups. Now she is back at square one.
Specialists, educators and parents alike acknowledge that many parents share White’s dilemma, and that the diversity of disabilities is a challenge in locating adequate special-needs daycare. The Arc of Northern Virginia, a local branch of the world’s largest organization for people with mental disabilities, maintains a website rich with this type of information. It comes highly recommended by parents who have been through such a search, like Stachkunas.
Northern Virginia also hosts arms of virtually every national disability advocacy organization, which parents can connect with readily via the Internet to find contacts, get involved and locate support groups. Barnett, the parent of a special-needs son, subscribes to The Arc-run Family Improvement Project listserv in Virginia (www.arcfip.org) in particular. Parents emphasize these types of peer contacts as the most pivotal resources in finding daycare—putting them in touch with other parents who have conducted similar searches, and hopefully keeping them from repeating their predecessors’ mistakes.
County-based child welfare centers offer advice as well. They do not directly provide special-needs daycare services, but handle so many queries from parents that they have become de-facto resource centers for this type of information. The Arc of Northern Virginia’s website offers a lengthy list of such centers in the area as well.
Barnett, whose child has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and limited verbal abilities, subscribes to center-based care simply due to personal experience because private in-home care options have proven unreliable for his needs. “I met with several people, and they would say OK to keeping my children, then I would call them afterwards to confirm that they would keep my kids, and they would back down.” Her son’s needs in particular either scared baby sitters, she thinks, or ultimately went unaddressed by private providers. Barnett finally put him in a daycare center near her home outside of Richmond.
White also prefers group-based care. Upon her son’s return to a classroom setting, “I can really see where he misses having the other kids to play with,” she noticed. And she is not alone. Parents and specialists alike acknowledge the benefit of peer interaction on child development.
The Easter Seals, an organization dedicated to disability advocacy, operates a location similar to the one Barnett’s son attends: a child development center in Falls Church for children up to 5 years of age, targeting those with less specialized needs. The percentage of children with disabilities at the center is small (around 15 percent) and lacks the low-ratio classrooms that some special-needs kids require. They do, however, incorporate systematic education plans and therapist recommendations, something Marilyn Ricker, vice president of child development programs for the Easter Seals of Greater Washington/Baltimore Region, remarks is an anomaly in integrative care. “A lot of times therapists can’t deliver early intervention in the classroom,” she notes.
Similarly, the public school system offers non-specialized before- and after-care. And according to Stachkunas, who works in the Prince William education system, students with a certain degree of need can receive related services as resource students from the schools.
For parents of higher-needs children, The Arc manages daycare centers in Prince William and Woodbridge. The Robert Day and Muriel Humphrey Child Development Centers deal exclusively with special-needs kids. The Robert Day center offers services up until age 22, including adaptive activities and a 1:4 caregiver ratio. No referral is needed.
Barnett’s son currently receives supplemental assistance at his daycare in the form of a one-on-one aide, and is set until age 13 when he will outgrow the center. Barnett will then need to find him another provider, which causes her concern given prior difficulties. At more specialized centers, however, it is not uncommon for high-needs individuals to stay at the same center for a sustained period of time. Stachkunas’s child, for example, has been attending the Muriel Humphrey Center for over a decade. “What we found as my child got older in regular daycare centers,“ she says, “is that the rooms get smaller as the curriculum changes.” Daycare centers become academic-focused, filled with activity-related manipulatives and furniture. This change takes a toll on special-needs children, who require crawl space and room for wheelchairs. That explains why children often remain at the same center into young adulthood, according to Stachkunas, not to mention the preference for consistency of care.
How to Pay
Funding for daycare depends on the type of disability, and the type of daycare. Some funds are available through Medicaid, Easter Seals takes vouchers provided by the state to low-income families, and the Department of Social Services may cover tuition at some facilities.