For disabled California kids receiving public services, who you are affects how much you get

A boy with autism plays in a water park.
A boy with autism plays in a water park.
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The state agencies charged with providing services for Californian kids with developmental disabilities spend far more on their white clients than they do on black and Latino children, according to a new report from the legal advocacy group Public Counsel.

At the 19 of the state's 21 agencies, known as "regional centers," officials authorized less spending for their Latino students than their white ones. And centers that serve predominantly black and Latino students receive much less funding overall than centers with mostly white clients. 

For example, the report compared funding levels at the South Central Regional Center – where 91 percent of clients are black or Latino – to those at the Westside Regional Center, whose clients are just over half black or Latino. A child at the South Central Regional Center receives on average nearly $8,000 less in services than their counterpart at the Westside center.

And at Los Angeles' Lanterman Regional Center, for example, Latino kids received on average $3,375 less in services compared to the center's white clients. 

The funding gaps are not a recent development, advocates said.

“The state has known that it’s been broken for well over 25 years,” said Public Counsel lawyer Brian Capra. “We thought there were going to be some significant changes five or six years ago,” when an investigation by the Los Angeles Times spurred an outcry over funding inequalities. 

And the obstacles to leveling out the quality of care remain mostly unchanged as well. 

One of those factors, advocates and state officials said, is white parents' greater willingness to challenge public agencies' decisions and their ability to muster greater amount of resources, including time, to advocate for more expensive services for their children. 

Capra said that unlike many white parents who won’t take no for an answer, some Latino families and from other ethnicities do not challenge an agency decision not to provide a service.

One potential solution to the problem, Capra said: change the amounts of money given to each child for each diagnosis so there is a narrower range of funding given to clients with the same diagnoses. 

California’s Department of Developmental Services (DDS) funds and oversees the 21 regional centers.

"Reducing disparities in underserved populations is a priority for the Department," a DDS spokeswoman said in a statement. "In the current fiscal year, $11 million was provided to the regional centers to implement best practices and new ideas to reduce disparities," the statement said.

And officials at individual centers also said they're aware of the problem.

“We’re trying to work on it in various ways,” said Patrick Aulicino, associate director at Lanterman Regional Center. 

His center now has a program that sends staff to talk to Latino families “who we identified, who we thought should be accessing services that may have been offered to them but they weren’t taking advantage of,” he said.

Better data is needed, Aulicino said, and that should come from state officials who examine funding for all 21 centers. But he resisted the idea that funding decision-making should be set in a more standard way. Since the regional centers are run by local boards of directors, funding decisions should also stay local, he said.