Follow-up shows improvement in BabyNet

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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina's program for infants and toddlers with disabilities has improved some in the past three years, but performance evaluations of BabyNet's providers continue to lag and rural shortages continue, according to a Legislative Audit Council report released Tuesday.

The report, a follow-up to the council's August 2011 audit, also noted the U.S. Department of Education has again designated the program's status as "needs intervention," triggering potential enforcement actions under federal law.

BabyNet is a joint state-federal effort to identify and provide services to children up to 3 years old who have developmental problems with speech, hearing, vision, motor skills, or social-emotional skills. First Steps to School Readiness, the state agency tasked with boosting children's chances for success, has run BabyNet since January 2010.

Since then, about 4,000 children yearly have been served through the program, according to First Steps.

The Legislative Audit Council found that First Steps has implemented 11 of the 21 recommendations it issued in 2011 and partially implemented six others. Meanwhile, the Legislature has made one of three suggested changes to the law.

Those partially implemented include evaluating providers' performance to ensure children are receiving quality and timely services. The monitoring system is currently in the pilot phase, which means providers' contracts are still being renewed without measuring their performance, according to the report.

First Steps Director Susan DeVenny said the follow-up review confirms BabyNet has come a long way since her agency inherited it from the Department of Health and Environmental Control. Created in 1994, South Carolina's program has never been in compliance with federally required targets and in 2003 became the first state under a compliance order.

"We've made yeoman advances," she told The Associated Press. "We'd like to see BabyNet be in compliance for the first time in its 20-year history."

According to a June letter from the U.S. Department of Education, South Carolina scored 56 percent on meeting federally required targets for BabyNet, based on 2012 data, which include determining children's eligibility for services within 45 days of their referral and transitioning them to available help in a timely fashion.

The federal agency is working with First Steps to correct the problems by Feb. 2, 2015, and agency representatives met with program officials last week.

California is the only other state whose status has been ranked "needs intervention" for four consecutive years, according to the latest federal report.

DeVenny said South Carolina is the only state to fund its program through multiple agencies. Nearly $29 million was spent on BabyNet in 2012-13, but less than 30 percent of that money flowed through First Steps. The state budget splits the money between six agencies, with one-third of the total coming from the federal government, according to BabyNet's first ever inter-agency revenue and expense report.

In 2011, the auditing agency recommended the Legislature instead appropriate all of the money through First Steps to increase accountability. Lawmakers have yet to do that.

DeVenny said that decentralization is why there has yet to be an outside audit of BabyNet, though she expects one within two years.

The director of a group that advocates for children with disabilities said that's concerning. An independent audit is needed to track BabyNet spending and ensure it's not spent on other activities, said Mary Eaddy, director of Parents Reaching Out to Parents of South Carolina.

She said BabyNet is still not reaching enough children and noted the report says First Steps has yet to pursue low-cost solutions for spreading public awareness about the program.

"If we're not getting them what they need, we're missing a huge chunk of development for that child," Eaddy said. "That's optimum time for any child to receive early intervention so they don't have lifelong effects. ... You're going to pay double later on."

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