Wait Listed

One family frets over a lack of child-care resources for their special-needs daughter

On the surface, Angela Pratt seems like a typical working mom, hustling each weekday morning to get her two children to school and then get herself to work.

While Pratt commands the phones of Dan's Toy ShopÑa midtown auto-mechanic business she owns and operates with her husband, Dan--she worries, just like many other parents of special-needs children in similar situations. Any day, Pratt could get a call from her youngest child's day-care center, asking her to pick up her child and never bring her back.

Pratt has been on a waiting list for a fully inclusive day-care center run by the Easter Seals Blake Foundation since February 2007. Her daughter is now No. 23 on a waiting list of more than 100 other children, for a program that can only serve 70 children.

Despite the worries, between customer calls, Pratt beams at pictures, hanging near the front door, of 4-year-old daughter Aaliyah, a Marana Unified School District preschooler, and her 2 1/2-year-old daughter, Christina.

Pratt points out her oldest daughter's beautiful brown eyes. In the picture of her youngest, Pratt points out her daughter's beautiful smile, but she particularly focuses on her daughter's eyes.

"You can see there's a little mischievousness in there. My mom and I both look at those brown eyes and wonder," Pratt says.

To the casual observer, the picture isn't out of the ordinary: a little girl with her brown hair pulled back in a loose pony tail, with sparkly brown eyes accompanied by a little pixie grin.

Both of Pratt's children are adopted. Her first daughter, Aaliyah, is her niece by birth, but came to live with Pratt and her husband under foster care before they formally adopted her when she was 3 years old. The foster system helped Pratt understand the importance of early childhood intervention when advocates through the Arizona state Division of Development Disabilities (DDD) revealed Aaliyah had some motor delays due to neglect. Through assistance offered through DDD, Aaliyah was able to catch up.

Pratt's experience with Aaliyah came in handy when she and her husband adopted Christina, who also arrived at the family's Continental Ranch home through the foster-care system. Christina was 3 months old at the time.

"Dan fell in love with her and asked, 'Can we keep her?'" Pratt says. "A week later, she was ours."

Pratt says she was aware that a test at Christina's birth indicated the girl had been exposed to cocaine in the womb. Christina was also diagnosed with acid reflux, which can cause terrible pain and makes digesting food difficult. At 6 months old, their daughter would cry and scream.

"It was so difficult, because she didn't even want us to touch her to console her," Pratt says.

At 14 months, Christina started to display behavior issues at home and in day care: She would bite, hit and pinch her parents, sister, caregivers and other children. Christina also began to show signs of sensory issues: She would melt down during rain storms or when the shower was on. At 15 months, Christina was kicked out of her first day care.

Through DDD, Pratt's daughter has received different therapies for speech and sensory issues, and behavior consultations at home. While Christina has improved in some areas, the behavior issues have continued, making Pratt wonder if there is a real solution for her daughter.

Pratt says she continues to hope that Christina will move up the Blake Foundation waiting list. Pratt says the foundation's reputation makes her believe its child-care center would be able to help her daughter's behavior issues and prepare her for school--more so than staying home or normal day care could.

"It's trying. I'm always worried (Christina's day care) is going to call and say, 'You need to get your kid and not come back,'" Pratt says. "But I just can't do that to her. I just can't take her out and put her in another day-care center where this could keep happening again and again."

This is Christina's third day-care center since she was 15 months old. Pratt says the current placement has been helpful, partly because Pratt has begged them to work with her, and because they've told her they recognize Pratt is trying to get help.

Last year, Christina hurt another child who had to go to the emergency room. Over time, Christina's behavior has gotten worse.

Pratt's frustration isn't lost on the staff at the Blake Foundation's child-care program.

"Part of it is that we have a reputation in this community," says Lela Messick, Blake's child-care director. "This is a fantastic place, but it's also because we are inclusive. If we have a student come in with cerebral palsy, we will work to make it happen" Messick says.

Messick says the Blake Foundation is looking for additional funding to enable the child-care center to add 40 more children to the 70 it is currently serving.

"But we're having a hard time coming up with the money right now. It's frustrating. We know it's easy to get frustrated with the system," Messick says.

In the past, the center was able to refer students on the waiting list to other child-care providers equipped to work with special-needs kids--but now, there aren't enough day-care centers to serve those children. State laws that determine teacher-student ratios do not help the situation either, Messick says.

Arizona laws allow day-care centers to have one teacher for every eight 2-year-olds.

"Once you put a kid with (cerebral palsy) or Down's (syndrome) in the mix, it gets very difficult for that one teacher," Messick says.

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