The state is requiring immediate new program placements and instruction for young students with disabilities after a report found that dozens were waiting for services in York County.
The decision comes after a complaint from Disability Rights Maine that young children with disabilities weren’t receiving needed instruction and therapy. An investigation found that 88 children served by the York County office of the state’s Child Development Services system were on waitlists for services.
Vanessa Pepin’s four-year-old son, Nathan, is one of the students involved in the complaint. Nathan has autism, and Pepin says she hopes he’ll get back into a classroom soon after spending months on waitlists for preschool programs.
“It made me really happy to see that my instincts weren’t off-base. And that Nathan is, actually, due for more. And that the pandemic doesn’t excuse the behavior that’s been happening for the past year,” she says.
Disability Rights Maine Attorney Ben Jones says that the decision is a good start, and he hopes the state will also address similar issues for students with disabilities across the state.
“We’re hopeful that DOE will use this decision as a model to address similar violations of IDEA statewide, so that they can fulfill their obligation and provide services to all eligible children,” he says.
Service providers and agencies say that the long waiting lists for services are partially a result of inadequate wages for teachers at private providers, leading to staff shortages across the state, and that spacing restrictions due to the pandemic have exacerbated the situation. Last month, a preschool classroom in Wells was forced to shut down because of a lack of teachers.
As part of a corrective action plan, the agency is also required to submit monthly reports on its progress to the state.
In an email, DOE Spokesperson Kelli Deveaux says that Child Development Services “has already begun to create programs, and has plans for two new locations opening in the next two months. The Department recognizes the impact that the pandemic has had on staffing, but will continue to work to find appropriate staffing for public early childhood special education programs that satisfy the requirements of the IDEA.”
Deveaux adds that the agency is looking at the issue across the state and will add additional services where they are needed.
“The Department believes that creating early childhood special education programs that are run and staffed by employees of CDS and/or in concert with existing public pre-K programs in our public schools is the best way to ensure that appropriate placements are available to our youngest students with disabilities,” Deveaux said.