Across the United States, young children with developmental delays or disabilities receive services through state-based programs funded by the federal government and by individual states. These programs provide a wide range of therapies for young children -- but are they equitable?
Indiana University researcher Katie Herron is midway through exploring that question with respect to First Steps, the state of Indiana's early intervention system that serves over 20,000 families each year. Her work is partially supported by IU’s Racial Justice Research Fund and done with the full support of First Steps leadership.
Herron is an assistant research scientist with the Early Childhood Center at IU Bloomington’s Indiana Institute on Disability and Community, which designs and implements evidence-based policies and practices for young children with disabilities and their families. She is working with Michael Conn-Powers, director of the Early Childhood Center at the IIDC.
Differences in outcomes for white and Black families in Indiana’s First Steps program have been recorded in required federal reports, Herron explained, but until now, there has not been any systematic examination of what’s behind those differences.
“When we assess children at the end of their programs, we look to see how much they’ve improved relative to their age,” Herron said. “And when we look at those age-appropriate outcomes, we see that there are more Black families who are not seeing significant improvement, while more white families achieve the outcomes.”
In the study’s initial phase, Herron and colleagues analyzed existing quantitative First Steps state data regarding the relationship between race and multiple factors. Their early findings revealed marked differences between experiences of Black and white families in the First Steps system.
“We see differences between white and Black families across several variables we looked at,” Herron said. “The data differences are significant.”
According to the research so far, race impacts
- Referrals: Black families are more likely to be referred by social service agencies, while white families are more likely to be referred by pediatricians.
- Time of program entry: White families enter First Steps earlier than Black families.
- Outcomes: Progress is significantly less for Black families; they experience fewer successful outcomes across all categories.
- Length of time in program: Black families are more likely to discontinue First Steps participation by passively withdrawing from the program.
The study is now focused on determining the factors behind these differences. Herron and her team have finished interviews with 111 white and Black families enrolled in First Steps, including families who have dropped out. They’re also interviewing First Steps providers from around the state of Indiana to see what they say about their work with Black families.
Herron hopes this qualitative data will reveal where biases exist in the system. For example, she noted, “Are we handling Black families differently when they start to no-show? Are we consistent in the way we follow up with white and Black families? Do we need to do contacts differently?”
As a parent of a child with a disability herself, Herron is determined not to blame families for the differences.
“It’s very important to me not to put all this on the families,” she said. “The differences are just too glaring; we’re not doing enough for Black families. I hope the interview data will give us more clarity.”
After the study is completed during Fall 2021, results will be shared with Indiana’s First Steps leadership, who have committed to using the analysis to inform their State Systemic Improvement Plan and to address new requirements from their federal partners in the Office of Special Education, Herron said. In addition, the team’s findings and recommendations will inform existing policies, professional development for providers, and workforce recruitment.