Major delay in assessing disabled children


HEALTH AUTHORITIES are failing to assess the needs of thousands of children with disabilities within legal time limits, according to an unpublished Health Service Executive report.

Experts and support groups say delays in assessments can be very damaging for children who need to get vital therapeutic services as soon as possible, particularly children with autism.

The report submitted to the HSE’s board in September last year showed that about 80 per cent of children – about 2,500 annually – were not being assessed within legal time limits.

Under the Disability Act, the HSE has a statutory obligation to be 100 per cent compliant with the timeline set out in legislation.

Six months is the maximum period within which an assessment must be completed, barring exceptional circumstances.

The report prepared for the board states that achieving full compliance with the law is not possible with current staffing resources available for carrying out assessments.

In order to avoid breaching these time limits, the report says “fundamental changes” are needed, such as a change in legislation that would extend the time allowed for carrying out assessments.

The Department of Health turned down this suggestion on the basis that “good practice would dictate that an assessment process for young children should not take longer than six months”.

Another option examined was decreasing the number of assessment reports for children who are in the education system. But the report cautions: “This will impact on children and their application for additional resources in school and needs to be addressed sensitively.”

A HSE officer is obliged to prepare a service statement for the child, setting out what services and supports will be provided within a month of the assessment being completed. In a more recent document prepared for the board at the end of March of this year, Dr Cate Hartigan, the HSE’s assistant national director with responsibility for disability, said the percentage of assessments being carried out on time was still at or about 20 per cent.

She said the number of children seeking assessments was continuing to rise, while there was also a backlog of overdue assessments. In the Dublin/Mid-Leinster region alone she said there were just over 600 assessments overdue at the beginning of 2011. This number had been reduced to 430 by the end of that year.

Dr Hartigan said significant work was under way in seeking to tackle these backlogs and to reduce assessment times.

She said a major emphasis was being placed on reconfiguring disability services for children into geographically-based early-intervention and school-aged teams.

In a statement to The Irish Times, the HSE said any delay in assessment or intervention for any child was not desirable.

“However, the assessment process under the Disability Act does not have to take place in advance of intervention.

“The process can take place in parallel with any interventions which are identified as necessary,” the statement said.