Major delays assessing the needs of hundreds of children with disabilities

Vulnerable young people regressing due to long waiting times for services, say advocates


Health authorities are failing to assess the needs of hundreds of children with suspected disabilities within legal time limits, new figures show.

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

A quarterly report drawn up by the Health Service Executive recently shows 763 children had still not received their needs assessment despite waiting six months or more.

Of these, 65 per cent were waiting nine months or more. A small number of assessments – 43 – were delayed due to “exceptional circumstances”.

Under the Disability Act 2005, children are entitled to have their needs assessed within six months.

Needs assessment also feeds into a service plan, which outlines what intervention a child needs to fulfil their potential.

Inclusion Ireland, an umbrella group for people with disabilities, said the delays were causing unnecessary stress among hardpressed parents.

Rights denied
“Parents feel particularly aggrieved that they are being put through this, especially as this is the only ‘right’ they are entitled to,” a spokeswoman said.

“Early intervention is key for children with a disability, and they have to watch as their children regress because they are waiting for yet another appointment before the assessment can be completed.”

On a more positive note, the latest figures show signs that the backlog of unfinished assessments is falling. The number of assessments overdue for completion has been reducing steadily over recent years.

Statistics also show significant variations across different regions in the number of assessments completed within the statutory time frames.

For example, most overdue assessments were in the Dublin west area (203). By contrast, there were several areas – such as Dublin southeast – where all assessments were carried out within legal time limits.

There has been a major rise in overall activity around the assessment process in recent years. The number of assessment reports completed rose by almost 25 per cent between 2010 and 2011.

In a statement, the HSE acknowledged the variations and said it was working on ways to ensure all children got assessed within statutory time frames.

Action plan
It said a detailed action plan was being implemented, which included developing a single, clear pathway to services for all children with disabilities and closer links between health and education services.

“It is expected that this reconfiguration of services will have a significant impact on our ability to meet the needs of children and young people in a more efficient, effective and equitable manner and, in particular, on our ability to comply with the statutory time frames set out in the Disability Act and the accompanying regulations,” the HSE said in a statement.

A recent report by the State’s advisory body on disability, the National Disability Authority, identified many of the factors it believes are leading to delays.

It found, for example, that the legislation was being used by many parents to speed up education assessments in the absence of the commencement of legislation governing access to special education.

Also, areas with the shortest waiting times tended to be those where early intervention services or children’s services had been properly integrated.