SOME of the Hunter’s most disadvantaged babies and children are relying on crowd-funding to receive professional support in “unique and critical” groups that have fallen through the cracks of the National Disability Insurance Scheme rollout.
Early intervention playgroups for disabled and at-risk children are relying on fundraising balls, one-off donations, approaches to corporations and crowd-funding to remain open on a month-to-month or term by term basis, after the NSW Government ended funding of individual services on July 1 to support the national scheme.
“These kids have just fallen into a black hole between the NDIS’s model of funding individuals and the state’s withdrawal from block funding of programs like early intervention supported playgroups,” said a Hunter service provider who asked not to be identified.
The withdrawal of NSW support is despite University of Sydney and University of Newcastle research showing Hunter early intervention playgroups, supported by speech and other therapists, and partnered with domestic violence, homelessness, multicultural and other services, provide “a unique and critical support pathway for families experiencing social isolation, disadvantage and marginalisation”.
The playgroups are often the first and only point of contact between babies and children under five and provide “a pivotal conduit for effective early childhood intervention, parental education and engagement”, said University of Sydney Associate Professor Amanda Howard after a research study of early intervention provider Hunter Prelude.
“The social and economic cost of children missing out on early intervention support is well documented as is the challenge of engaging families experiencing disadvantage,” Associate Professor Howard said in a letter to a parliamentary inquiry into NSW programs in the wake of the NDIS rollout.
“For parents and children the impacts of funding ceasing for this important program include a return to social isolation, lack of support for their child to improve school readiness, and longer term social and educational challenges once children reach school age,” she said.
Port Stephens MP Kate Washington said the sector was “in despair because they know how important it is to keep these groups operating for the children and their families”.
“Governments at federal and state level are failing the most vulnerable families. What these programs were doing, and what they want to continue to do, is about trying to stop children ending up in out of home care. We want to see families supported so they can stay together,” Ms Washington said.
“My criticism is aimed very squarely at the NSW Government. It has handed over all its money for these types of supports to the NDIS, but without considering there might be problems or a need for funding to ensure these types of program can continue to operate.
Governments at federal and state level are failing the most vulnerable families. What these programs were doing, and what they want to continue to do, is about trying to stop children ending up in out of home care. We want to see families supported so they can stay together.Port Stephens MP Kate Washington.
“The families and children affected are those who need it the most.”
In September she told parliament that Hunter group FirstChance called on local businesses to keep its supported Little Ones playgroup for children with a disability from birth to age nine open, and held fundraisers including a ball. Its funding ended in June.
“In the face of ceasing support for families at such a difficult time in their lives, the FirstChance board decided the Little Ones program was too precious to lose,” Ms Washington said.
Hunter Prelude, a not for profit organisation that has provided early childhood intervention and therapy services for children up to 12 for more than three decades, told the inquiry implementation of the NDIS in NSW had had a “high risk” impact on children and families needing support.
Under previous arrangements funded by the NSW Department of Family Services - Ageing, Disability and Home Care (ADHC), children were eligible to access early intervention support and specialist therapies for most disabilities or if they were at risk of developmental delay because of family difficulties, including domestic violence.
Hunter Prelude told the inquiry it was clear eligibility to access services had changed under the NDIS so that many children are now deemed ineligible for early intervention support when the need for support is most critical.
While the state’s funding focus accommodated programs that included family issues contributing to or exacerbating developmental delays, the more narrow NDIS model’s focus on disability support excludes holistic early intervention playgroups.
Since 2016 Early Childhood Intervention Australia has held two round-tables with NSW Government representatives and service providers to discuss increasing concerns about the gap in services for pre-school children with disabilities, or who are at risk of development delay because of family circumstances.
A study found children in regional and remote areas of NSW were more likely to fall through the gap left between the withdrawal of NSW funding and the rollout of the NDIS.
Children ineligible for NDIS plans are now on waiting lists of 12 months or more for community health paediatric services.
“There are concerns in the sector that the children are missing out on supports now and enter the scheme at a later stage with significantly more complex needs,” the ECIA said.
Hunter Prelude’s crowd-funding site is at https://makingadifference.gofundraise.com.au/page/KimberlyLewis