The number of young children enrolled in programs to help with disabilities and developmental delays has decreased in the past five years along the Texas Gulf Coast, despite the area’s increased population, according to a new report.

The report, by Texans Care for Children, a children’s advocacy group, said the number of children receiving early childhood intervention care in 10 Houston-area counties, including Galveston, has decreased by 21 percent since 2011.

The report puts part of the blame for the reduced service on state funding cuts to intervention programs since 2011.

“It’s heartbreaking to know that children are missing these opportunities due to state cuts,” said Stephanie Rubin, the CEO of Texans Care for Children.

Early Childhood Intervention programs help families learn to cope with children who have autism, speech delays, Down syndrome or other disabilities. State funding for such programs have fallen from $166 million in the 2011 fiscal year to $148 million in 2018.

The number of Galveston County children enrolled in Early Childhood Intervention programs actually grew by 7 percent over the past five years, according to the report, from 487 children in 2011 to 519 in 2016. But the numbers don’t reflect recent local changes to how the service is provided in Galveston County.

In May, the University of Texas Medical Branch announced it would no longer participate in the state-funded Early Childhood Intervention program. Officials cited state restrictions on which patients were eligible for the program and a decrease in reimbursements from the state as reasons for leaving the program.

The funding constraints caused high staff turnover at the medical branch, which led to the decision to leave the program, according to the report.

High turnover can make intervention programs less effective, according to the report.

“The difficulty maintaining adequate staff makes it harder for contractors to meet the cultural and linguistic needs of families,” according to the report.

At the time it closed, the 300 children served by the Galveston-based program were transferred to a different contractor in Beaumont, about 80 miles away.

The medical branch was the fourth Early Childhood Intervention program in the Houston-area to drop out of the state-funded program since 2009.

Rubin said it’s possible that with the closure of the Galveston program, some families may have lost the services they had been receiving.

“There are kids and families that fall through the cracks during the transition,” Rubin said. “Families don’t know there’s a new provider or pediatricians aren’t sure where to refer and that ends up putting downward pressure on access.”

When the medical branch announced its departure from the state Early Childhood Intervention program, officials said they would start their own version of the program.

That program began in November, said Dr. Oscar Brown, a professor and the vice chair for Clinical Affairs in the medical branch’s pediatrics department, and has already had more than 70 children referred to it.

The medical branch’s program, known as Kids Launch, is open to children that might have qualified for the state Early Childhood Intervention program, including children up to age 7.

“We can operate on a more liberal criteria,” Brown said. “We’re going to have more that we can provide services to.”

John Wayne Ferguson: 409-683-5226; john.ferguson@galvnews.com or on Twitter @johnwferguson.

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