Developmental disabilities system needs sustained funding

OPINION– With a critically important mission, California’s developmental disabilities services system serves nearly 400,000 individuals or about 1 percent of the state’s population. Through 21 community-based regional centers funded with state and federal dollars, individuals and their families have access to professionals who connect them to services and resources to meet their unique needs. Service for these individuals starts at the regional center, making them the vital link between individuals, their families, and the services they need to support them in all stages of life.

While the need is growing, a recent State Auditor report noted funding shortfalls are a root cause of a severe shortage of service coordinators. This dynamic impacts efforts to improve on the delivery of consistent, efficient, and timely services to children and adults with developmental disabilities.

People with developmental disabilities are among the most vulnerable in our society. The state budget must prioritize increased and sustained funding for these individuals, regardless of a budget deficit, to ensure these individuals and families have the opportunity to progress.

Service coordination is the beating heart of regional centers. Each person served is paired with a coordinator to plan to meet their needs, which come from their diagnosis, age, support needs, preferences, and cultural values. The hallmarks of success include developing trusting relationships, individualized plans, and securing needed resources to make goals into realities. Unfortunately, in recent years large caseloads have made it harder to do this, directly impacting individuals served.

This reality is made clear by the fact that that state has invested money in solving it. But even as regional centers work to hire new service coordinators, a comprehensive solution still hasn’t been rolled out. New expectations and old funding formulas mean that even if every dollar already promised was spent, there would still be a significant shortfall of hundreds of service coordinators.

People with developmental disabilities are among the most vulnerable in our society.

Instituted in 1969, the Lanterman Act defined the rights of individuals with developmental disabilities and established a system to meet the individualized needs of those individuals and their families throughout California. Since then, regional centers have continually expanded their range of options to ensure appropriate, individually-responsive services are available to help these individuals lead full, integrated lives in communities of their choosing. While each person’s needs, goals, and services vary, the primary role of regional centers is to identify, coordinate and monitor services needed and provide quality outcomes to all people served.

This system is the only one of its kind in the nation. In other states, people wait years to access any developmental services. And with continued growth, additional funding is needed to ensure adequate statewide system capacity. While California has incrementally increased funding for certain components of the system, it was also recently acknowledged by former Assemblymember and current Little Hoover Commission member Dion Aroner that regional centers “are not adequately funded” and that the “fiscal issues are dramatic.”

As with any state-funded system with such an important charge, a comprehensive review of funding levels that leads to actions remains vital. Sustained funding for critical services and supports for Californians with developmental disabilities will better enhance and expand service access. Californians living with developmental disabilities need to have effective and efficient access to the services and resources they require to live a full life in their communities.

In a recent National Core Indicators survey of 5,000 respondents, the vast majority of people served by regional centers say their experiences are positive, with over 90 percent of people reporting that their services and supports through regional centers help them live a good life. This is exactly what the goal and intent of the Lanterman Act was.

Californians living with developmental disabilities need to have effective and efficient access to the services and resources they require to live a full life in their communities.

Included in Governor Newsom’s recently released 2023-24 Budget proposal is just over $100 million of increased and sustained funding dedicated to children ages 0-5. It ensures they can have service coordinators with the lower caseloads needed to give them the time and attention to set them up for lifelong success. But this need exists for all Californians with developmental disabilities.

These investments are critical to addressing staffing shortages and caseload ratios, which will have a positive impact on these individuals served through California’s regional centers. We applaud the governor for his dedication and commitment to this important issue and encourage the administration and the Legislature to maintain and expand on this critical investment as budget negotiations continue in coming months. But until we build on this honest accounting of need, the needs of all 400,000 Californians with developmental disabilities will continue to be impacted.

Amy Westling is the Executive Director of the Association of Regional Centers (ARCA).

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