NASIR BAKER is almost 5 years old, but his speech is as garbled as a toddler's.
"It's definitely gotten worse," says his mother, Vanessa Wright, while Nasir scoots around a conference room at the Education Law Center, on Walnut Street near 13th.
Indeed, when Nasir asks his mom a question, Wright can't understand him. Neither can I.
"Nasir, I don't know what you're saying. Try it again," she says patiently, but he clamps his lips.
"He starts kindergarten in the fall. If it's still this bad, I'm afraid he'll get teased," Wright continues. "His teachers might think he's not smart. He's frustrated."
You know what's more frustrating? Nasir's speech might have been so much better by now if Elwyn Inc. - the agency that was supposed to provide speech therapy to Nasir for the past year - had provided him with services the law entitled him to.
"That's such a long time [delay] in the development of a child," says Jennifer Lowman, an attorney with the Education Law Center.
The center, along with the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania, has just filed a scathing complaint with the state against Elwyn, alleging multiple violations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Also named are Pennsylvania's Department of Education and Office of Child Development and Early Learning, which oversee Elwyn's $23 million contract to provide special-ed services to preschoolers.
"Everyone knows how critical the early years are to child development," says Lowman. "It's unbelievable that Nasir has had to wait for so long."
Unconscionable is more like it.
Nasir's story begins in November 2008, when his Head Start teacher at Joseph C. Ferguson Elementary School recommended that Nasir, then 3, be evaluated for government-funded therapy to help his speech.
This early intervention is not a handout to the poor, by the way. It's part of an entitlement system, paid for by the feds and administered by the state, that aims to get struggling preschoolers of every income level up to speed.
In this region of Pennsylvania, the state pays Elwyn, which offers help to disabled people of all ages, to serve 5,000 kids ages 3 to 5. While Elwyn employees might provide certain services directly, the agency hires subcontractors to provide most other early intervention.
Vanessa Wright began the process by requesting an evaluation of Nasir, a process that should have been completed within 60 days. It took Elwyn 132 days to render its recommendation of speech therapy for him.
Elwyn scheduled an initial meeting with Wright and the Head Start teacher, but Wright was a no-show. She says that she was never told of the meeting.
The get-together was rescheduled; this time, Elwyn was a no-show. And then, says Lowman, "things ground to a halt."
For months, despite numerous pleas from Wright and the Head Start teacher, Nasir's speech therapy never got under way. No one at Elwyn seemed even to know which provider agency was to begin Nasir's sessions.
Finally, in February, Wright was referred to the Education Law Center. By then, Lowman, who had heard similar complaints about Elwyn, had been talking about the agency for almost a year with attorney Gabe Labella of the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania, who'd also heard complaints.
Lowman says they'd had numerous conversations with administrators in Harrisburg in charge of monitoring Elwyn, who admitted that Elwyn was basically a mess: It had no computerized database to track its early intervention clients. Its fiscal supervision of the contract was sloppy. It didn't offer timely or consistent services.
And parents who wanted to complain about Elwyn had no easy way to do so.
Man, $23 million doesn't buy much, does it?
To its credit, when the Department of Education heard last year of Elwyn's issues, it began providing Elwyn "intensive, on-site technical assistance to help them implement extensive system changes," says department spokesman David DeKok. "We have seen significant improvement in Elwyn's performance.
"However, if Elwyn does not fully implement our corrective action plan, Elwyn will no longer be the provider of early-intervention services in Philadelphia."
Elwyn, while not commenting on Nasir's case, promises to resolve the issues outlined in the complaint.
Last week, someone from Elwyn finally contacted Vanessa Wright and scheduled Nasir for 36 speech-therapy sessions - sessions he presumably would have had by now had anyone at the agency cared that a year is an eternity in the life of a developmentally delayed child.
I'd like to assume the long-overdue scheduling had nothing to do with the agency's getting wind that the Daily News was looking into Nasir's case.
But I wasn't born yesterday.
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