A state program responsible for helping infants and toddlers who are disabled has trouble keeping track of its spending and has not met federal guidelines for years, according to a report released Wednesday by the Legislative Audit Council (LAC).
The audit looked into the interagency system known as BabyNet. In 2010, the program was transferred under the purview of First Steps to School Readiness, an agency tasked with helping prepare pre-school children. Several lawmakers, led by Rep. Shannon Erickson (R-Beaufort), requested the audit to determine any effects of the transfer. The agency had repeatedly missed federal benchmarks for years while it was under the Department of Health and Environmental Control.
“One thing they wanted us to try to do is get a handle on how much money is flowing to serve clients 0-to-3 years of age through the program,” said LAC Director Tom Bardin, “So we spent a lot of time trying to track those funds down.”
The difficulty was in how BabyNet is structured. Four different agencies (Department of Disabilities & Special Needs, the School for the Deaf & Blind, Department of Mental Health, and the Department of Social Services) are involved in the system, but the funding is appropriated separately. The audit said First Steps also did not track Medicaid spending by those agencies. The result was a system that cost a total of $36 million in federal and state funding, at least $6 million more than officials had previously believed.
The report recommends giving First Steps the ability to oversee funding for the different agencies responsible for BabyNet. A proviso was attached to the state budget this year that would have done that, but the Department of Disabilities and Special Needs was removed from the final version.
Any child up to age three is eligible to participate in BabyNet if they have not reached age-appropriate milestones in one or more areas of their development. Approximately 6,700 children received services through the program. Anyone can recommend a referral into the system.
The report also recommends charging a sliding, income-based fee to families that have children in the system as a way to help alleviate its costs. The services are currently offered for free.
Federal inspectors have also repeatedly said South Carolina’s efforts to help disabled children are not up to par. The program was coming up short in identifying children with developmental delays and referring them to appropriate providers, as well as determining the services they needed.
The report said Education Department officials threatened to take away some of the federal funding if the program did not show progress by 2009. BabyNet was listed as “needing intervention” as recently as 2007, before the system began slightly improving over the next two years.
“I don’t know how seriously we took the program until recently,” Bardin said, “The federal government kept offering us free technical assistance to help identify and fix these problems and we never took advantage of it.”
Bardin said First Steps has begun receiving some assistance.
First Steps Director Susan DeVenny agreed with most of the audit’s recommendations. In a response to the LAC, she wrote, “We continue to be challenged by the state’s historically decentralized approach to program funding and accountability, and are working closely with the U.S. Department of Education, our agency partners and national/regional technical assistants to ensure that BabyNet fulfills its mission to families, children and taxpayers.”