How Childhood Traumas Are Driving Special-Needs Funding

Spending on private day schools has driven the increase in CSA spending over the past ten years. Graph source: JLARC

by James A. Bacon

More than 17,000 Virginia school children were categorized by the Virginia Department of Education as being disabled by autism or severe emotional issues in the 2018-19 school year. If these students get too unruly for schools to handle, they often wind up getting transferred to private special-education day schools.

The cost of providing these special services, paid under the state’s Children’s Services Act (CSA), has more than doubled since Fiscal Year 2010 to $186 million, according to a new report by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC). Spending increases have averaged about 14% per year since FY 2010.

Tuition at these private schools range from $22,000 to $97,000 per child, consistent with the cost of providing low student-to-staff ratios. Charges per child have risen about 3% annually, a bit more than the inflation rate. The big cost driver has been the 50% increase in enrollment over the decade.

Private day schools have grown into a significant educational expense in Virginia. Continued spending growth could crowd out funding for other priorities. Total spending by the Children’s Services Act of more than $400 million covers foster care, community services and other programs, all of which have been flat or declining over the decade.

The underlying problem is the increase in increasingly “challenging” — e.g. violent and disruptive — behavior of school children. Writes JLARC:

According to especial education directors across the state, the types of challenging behaviors that often result in private day school placement are usually associated with underlying trauma, autism, or some other childhood mental disorder. … Of children who received an initial assessment for CSA services … the percentage of children who reported experiencing trauma grew by 20 percent between FY10 and FY19.

The prevalence of autism and other childhood mental disorders has also increased in the same time period. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the prevalence of autism increase by over 60 percent between 2008 and 2016, from one in 88 children to one in 54 children. Virginia’s special education data shows an even more dramatic increase in the prevalence of autism in a similar timeframe. Virginia students identified with autism increased by 124 percent between 2009 and 2019.

JLARC approaches CSA funding primarily as a fiscal and administrative issue. The study’s top recommendations are to put the program under the control of the Virginia Department of Education and to allow funds to flow to public schools if they can use the money to prevent children from being placed in more restrictive — and expensive — private settings.

But JLARC framed its questions in such a way as to ignore a critical question: Why has there been such a dramatic increase in the number of children experiencing early trauma? Could the Commonwealth of Virginia allocate its limited dollars to reduce the incidence of childhood trauma in the first place? To be more specific, could the state reduce the incidence of childhood trauma by investing in a superior foster care system?

Foster care spending was flat over the 10-year period studied. Adjusted for inflation, it actually declined. The quality of foster care programs in Virginia is notoriously spotty. How many children subjected to abuse and neglect could be saved by a better-run system?

Virginia seems to be caught in a vicious cycle in which declining resources for foster care increases the incidence of neglect, abuse, and childhood trauma… which manifests itself in more children conducting disruptive emotional outbursts in public schools… which leads to more problem children being placed in expensive private day care settings…. which takes away money that might otherwise have been allocated to foster care.

Admittedly, one can’t blame foster-care under-funding for the increase in autism, so the problem is likely more complex than I have described here. Still, we seem caught on a treadmill, and it would be helpful to take a more holistic view than JLARC has adopted for this study.

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10 responses to “How Childhood Traumas Are Driving Special-Needs Funding”

  1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    “But JLARC framed its questions in such a way as to ignore a critical question: Why has there been such a dramatic increase in the number of children experiencing early trauma?”

    Hint –

    Children need both mothers and fathers.

    Children need both mothers and fathers who do not abandon them but live their children together instead.

    Children need both mothers and fathers who do not abuse them, but give them safe secure homes and teach them good habits instead.

    Children need both mothers and fathers who are not drunks, and crack-heads, but responsible adults instead.

    Children need both mothers and fathers who talk and read to their children, and who strongly encourage that their children learn at school.

    How do we get parents like this? We admit to ourselves and to everyone else what the real problems for our children are, instead of encouraging those problems by hiding them and blaming others instead of parents.

    Then next, we use carrots and sticks on parents who fail their children, and so demand that they stop the carnage, and act as responsible adults.

    1. I totally agree.

      The trick is figuring out what government can do to reduce the incidence of out-of-wedlock birth and encourage more responsible parental behavior. I doubt liberals and conservatives will ever agree.

      1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
        Reed Fawell 3rd

        The trick is to change the culture. The GOP has to learn how to change the rotten culture we have, and be better at doing the change the right way, than the far left is at changing the culture the wrong way. The GOP has abandoned the field. Thus they have themselves to blame. Now, they are backed into a corner. America’s culture has reached a tipping point, into collapse. The GOP has no options left except strong action. Otherwise the nation is lost. Just like we already have lost generations of children, and turned a blind eye to the carnage, with almost nary a whimper.

  2. Baconator with extra cheese Avatar
    Baconator with extra cheese

    If these parents are causing “trauma” shouldn’t they be prosecuted for child abuse?
    This is psychological abuse isn’t it? I mean the “evidence” shows that what parents are doing to their children is causing a devestating impact.

    1. Neglect and abuse is a very wide spectrum, and only the most severe go to jail. I’ve watched parents being arrested in front of their children. It’s gut wrenching to witness. Even abused Children have a bond with their parents.

      When parents are prosecuted, the bottom line for the children is still not great for many. Some are then raised by relatives, or turned over to foster care. That’s how we got Charles Manson.

      I’ve known many terrific parents who have adopted children from troubled homes. As good and as dedicated as try to be as parents, it’s still a very difficult situation, and things don’t always turn out well. The older the children are and the longer they experienced the trauma, the less likely it is for them to lead a normal life afterward.

      Parents can really screw up their children.

      1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
        Reed Fawell 3rd

        Nathan says:
        “Neglect and abuse is a very wide spectrum, and only the most severe go to jail … Parents can really screw up their children.”

        I agree, Nathan – abuse of children can take many forms, and is mostly far more subtle than violence toward child – things like living in silence, hearing few words, parents shouting at one another, never ending streams of ever changing lovers, parents abusing themselves, lack of attention, lack of sense of security, or love, or stimulation, too little or too much – the list of harms to children is nearly endless, and common as mud, and it quickly and often does irreparably harm to children. A good primer on this is the book Becoming Human. Many kids are lost very early, never have a chance really.

  3. djrippert Avatar

    If you haven’t read it yet you should read Thomas Sowell’s book, Late Talking Children. All about autism, the experiences of his son who was diagnosed as autistic and Sowell’s own thoughts on why the number of autism diagnoses has skyrocketed.

  4. ksmith8953 Avatar

    First, I entered teaching as a special educator in 1975, just about the same time as PL 94.142 kicked in. Second, I was able to spend time prior to PL 94.142 in special schools funded by local school divisions as a student teacher and employee. Third, I have sat on many FAPT committees and placed students with serious needs in day school settings. So here is my take on the JLARC study –

    The children placed by FAPT committees into day schools are often multi-handicapped. So, the child is often not just autistic, but also profoundly cognitively delayed, learning disabled, or some other disability, which may or may not have created the “trauma”. He/she may or may not have experienced only “trauma” as the reason for placement. They are placed by the FAPT committees to these schools because, it is best for the child, it is the right thing to do, and as the study pointed out, the child may have a better chance of success (depending on how you define success, I think in these cases, success can be defined by better outcomes as adults.)

    Prior to 94.142, school systems had special schools. These special schools often housed children with multiple low incidence disabilities, ages 2-21, in a school much like the day schools reported in the study. Many services were provided, OT, PT, counseling, etc. PL 94.142 changed all of those kind of services. It was unacceptable and unlawful to house a 16 year old in a school with a 4 year old, etc.

    What happened is what was expected. Public Schools are schools on the inclusive, not exclusive end of the spectrum. Some, few, but needy students required a much more exclusive environment. Thus, the day schools were invented as a solution.

    Before taking every recommendation from this study and acting on it, I suggest the GA visit these schools. I am certain that public school personnel will continue to provide this kind of placement for the reasons that I have given above — it is best for the student.

    Fairfax has two special schools – the Key Center and Kilmer Center. Both provide excellent care to students. I have visited both. Unlike, Fairfax, Dinwiddie is not as large and cannot staff within the requirements of the special education code cost effectively and chooses day school placement. Like the Key and Kilmer Center, the day schools selected provide excellent care to students.

    Accountability: Give me a break. If I am seriously cognitively delayed and emotionally disturbed, and let’s throw in traumatized, what kind of test could you use for accountability? This is why the Kilmer and Key Centers have alternative accreditation plans recognized by the Board of Education.

    Why do we think one size fits all? It doesn’t, and for these students, another road taken is the best path.

    No person on these IEP committees or FAPTS committees is thinking about money, they are thinking about what is best for the kid! Not everything is economics.

    1. Baconator with extra cheese Avatar
      Baconator with extra cheese

      Bravo. And thank you for your service to children with special needs.
      As a dad who fought for his girl to receive necessary school supports, provided in a private day school, you summed this up nicely.
      It is a very complicated education world out there.
      But I believe “trauma” is brought up in this study mainly because inner city schools are using this terminology to write off a portion of their emotional disturbed students.
      Just like Jason Kamras said…. ” this isn’t Chesterfield or Henrico”… how right he is.
      Big differences between autism and emotionally disturbed kids. It’s pretty disgusting to lump all special needs kids togther. It demonstrates laziness and the desire to sweep it all under a big rug of failure.

  5. Posted on behalf of Reed Fawell:

    From The Fury of Fatherless by Mary Eberstadt, 12/ 2020 edition of First Things:

    “According to the first thorough examination of the street protests triggered by the death of George Floyd, undertaken by Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project in conjunction with the Bridging Divides Initiative at Princeton, more than 10,600 incidents of what is benignly called “unrest” were recorded between May 24 and August 22. Of these, some 570 involved violence. Of those, most have involved Black Lives Matter activists. Preliminary insurance estimates show that the damage will surpass the $1.2 billion in damages accrued during the 1992 Rodney King riots. And then there are the atmospherics that separate these protests from many that have gone before: lusty screaming, ecstatic vandalism, the menacing of bystanders.

    The ritualistic exhibition of destructive behaviors in city after city is without precedent in America. Neither the civil rights demonstrations nor the protests against the war in Vietnam looked remotely like this. The differences demand explanation. Blame what you will on the usual bête noirs: ¬Donald Trump, cancel culture, police brutality, political tribalism, the coronavirus pandemic, far-right militias, BLM, antifa. All these factors feed the “¬demand” side of the protests and rioting, the ¬reasons for the ritualistic enactment. But what about the “supply” side—the ready and apparently inexhaustible ranks of demonstrators themselves? What explains them?

    The answer cannot be “racism.” The spectacle of often-white protesters screaming at sometimes-black policemen undercuts anything dreamed of by Critical Race Theory. So do the actual statistics concerning cop-on-black crime. So do public attitudes. In 2017, according to Pew Research, 52 percent of respondents said that race “doesn’t make much difference” in marriage, and another 39 percent said that interracial marriage is “a good thing.” When 91 percent of the public shrugs at or applauds interracial marriage, it is absurd to speak of a spectral racism that permanently and irredeemably poisons society.

    So, here’s a new theory: The explosive events of 2020 are but the latest eruption along a fault line running through our already unstable lives. That eruption exposes the threefold crisis of filial attachment that has beset the Western world for more than half a century. Deprived of father, Father, and patria, a critical mass of humanity has become socially dysfunctional on a scale not seen before.

    This is especially true of the young. The frantic flight to collective political identities has primordial, not transient, origins. The riots are, at least in part, a visible consequence of the largely invisible crisis of Western paternity. We know this to be true, in more ways than one.

    First, a syllogism: The riots amount to social dysfunction on parade. Six decades of social science have established that the most efficient way to increase dysfunction is to increase fatherlessness. And this the United States has done, for two generations now. Almost one in four children today grows up without a father in the home. For African Americans, it is some 65 percent of children.

    Some people, mainly on the left, think there’s nothing to see here. They’re wrong. The vast majority of incarcerated juveniles have grown up in fatherless homes. Teen and other mass murderers almost invariably have filial rupture in their biographies. Absent fathers predict higher rates of truancy, psychiatric problems, criminality, promiscuity, drug use, rape, domestic violence, and other less-than-optimal outcomes.

    Here’s another pertinent, albeit socially radioactive fact: Fatherlessness leads to a search for father substitutes. And some of these daddy placeholders turn out to be toxic.

    The murder rates in inner cities, for example, are irreducibly familial phenomena. That’s because the murder problem is largely a gang problem, and the gang problem is largely a daddy problem. As the Minnesota Psychological Association put it in a study published in August:

    A high percentage of gang members come from father-absent homes . . . possibly resulting from a need for a sense of belonging. Gaining that sense of belonging is an important element for all individuals. Through gangs, youth find a sense of community and acceptance. In addition, the gang leader may fill the role of father, often leading members to model their behaviors after that individual. . . . Having a father in the child’s life greatly reduces the likelihood of a child joining a gang . . .

    Second, the language of BLM itself suggests that daddy issues are an ingredient in the political mix that has exploded in cities across the country. Before it was removed in late September, one section of the BLM website declared: “We disrupt the Western–prescribed nuclear family structure requirement by supporting each other as extended families and ‘villages’ that collectively care for one another, especially our children, to the degree that mothers, parents, and children are comfortable.”

    Note the missing noun: fathers. It is as if fathers—as distinct from “parents”—had ceased to exist.

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