Bay County families find limited child-care options for children with special needs

Samara Nenadov knows firsthand the struggle that Bay County families are going through to find child-care for their special needs children. Her own daughter, 3-year-old Marlia, was suspended from a local child-care program last September. With expulsion threatened, Nenadov began the difficult process of finding another caregiver so she would be able to keep her job.

Marlia had attended this particular program since she was three months old, but when a new director took over last summer and expressed that she didn’t feel this was an appropriate place for Marlia, Nenadov began to sense that this arrangement wasn’t going to work.

Samara Nenadov says Marlia was frequently sent home from her former child-care center because the staff wasn't able to handle some of her behaviors. Marlia was acting out in ways typical for children with special needs.“I would drop her off at 7:30, and by 8:00 I was getting a call to come pick her up. I would have to leave work and go get her. I was missing days of work, and it was a mess. This went on from the end of August until the end of September,” Nenadov says.

A preschool teacher herself, Nenadov is familiar with the resources available in the community, and still finding a new place for Marlia proved to be a difficult task. Marlia tried a second program at the end of September last year, but unfortunately only made it for one day. While she struggles with a speech delay, Marlia also is working through behaviors such as pinching and biting, actions typical of someone with her special needs.

“It hurt my heart. I work with kids, and all kids are different. Especially at that age, they are still learning. It was very hard for all of us. If it wasn’t for the [Bay-Arenac] ISD staff’s support, I don’t know where we’d be.”

What’s more, Marlia’s needs have been well-documented and supported over the years. After delays were noticed around age 1, she became part of the Early On program through the Bay-Arenac ISD (BAISD), which provided in-home speech services and support for both Marlia and her mother. The program helped to develop an IFSP (Individual Family Service Plan), an in-depth assessment of Marlia's needs and the needs and concerns of the family, including services and outcomes.

At age 3, her IFSP was transitioned to an IEP (Individualized Education Plan), which includes speech services, occupational therapy, social work services, and access to assistance from a special education teacher.

The average child-care center often doesn't have the staff with the training to help children with special needs. When behaviors aren't appropriately addressed, they often escalate. Thankfully, Marlia eventually landed at a BAISD program based at Hughes Elementary in Essexville that has been a great fit, but Nenadov points out that one provider within the county just isn’t enough, and parents who don’t have the connections and background she has likely don’t know where to turn.

“There need to be options for these families. We need these centers to be trained. This is the world we live in. Kids have behaviors. The staff needs to be trained to know what to do. I don’t want to see any other families go through this,” Nenadov says.

Since joining Miss Fran’s classroom at Hughes, led by 30-plus year veteran teacher Fran Dabrowski, Nenadov says Marlia’s language has exploded, and she receives appropriate social-emotional support. Marlia has also been provided a LAMP board which assists her in communicating by allowing her to find a picture or symbol, push the button, and hear the word or idea she wants to express.

Samara Nenadov says her daughter, Marlia, deserves quality options for child care. Like any other kid, Marlia wants to be with other children while she learns.As blessed as Nenadov feels to have landed here, the program is only a three-hour one. Nenadov is a single parent, and without family help in the area, this left her needing to hire a nanny for Marlia during afternoon hours. To make matters more complicated, her current nanny is having a child of her own, meaning Nenadov is back at square one, interviewing new candidates.

Nenadov’s story is not uncommon. There are not enough licensed child-care options in Bay County to serve the number of children living here. Read more about the shortfall in this Jan. 12, 2023 Route Bay City story.

Gretchen Wagner, Director of Early Childhood Education at the BAISD, points out that special needs families are especially challenged when it comes to finding a provider able to work through typical needs and behaviors.

Wagner attributes that challenge not to an unwillingness to work with special needs children, but to concerns regarding licensing and proper training.

“Licensing has rules around numbers and how many staff you need to have in the classroom based on the number of children, and sometimes a child with special needs has more needs, and so the staff have to tend to that child, which can pull the programs out of ratio, which can cause a violation with licensing. So that is often a concern for child-care providers,” Wagner explains.

In addition, Wagner points out that frequent staff turnover and lack of training can worsen common behaviors, including throwing objects, hitting, biting, and pinching.

“Staff often just aren’t familiar with how to work with children with special needs. So when a child exhibits some typical behaviors for them, the staff don’t necessarily know how to address it or how to work with that child, which can elevate behaviors. It’s nothing against the staff. They just haven’t had the opportunity for training,” Wagner says.

Marlia uses a LAMP board to communicate with family, friends, and child-care staff.Wagner’s own niece has special needs, and after working diligently to find an appropriate placement, she ended up being dismissed due to behaviors typical of those with her special needs.

Wagner thinks the solution to the problem of access to equitable child-care will take time and needs to come from higher up.

“I believe that child-care should be subsidized in some way, shape, or form because child-care providers are paid at the lower end of compensation rates, and so there is a lot of turnover. By potentially having more pay for these folks, we’d be able to work on that stability in the child-care industry,” Wagner says. “More staff could turn around to provide more care for children with special needs.”

Marlia's mom has tried several different arrangements for child-care for Marlia, but some of her behaviors make it difficult for centers to provide the care she needs. Marlia's behaviors are typical of children with special needs.However, another essential component is more training for these child-care providers, a service that Wagner says the BAISD is prepared to provide so that more special needs children have access to care and socialization.

“Equity in access for families is so important. It is really important for children to be with their peers, whether they are typically developing or not. All children will learn from each other, so the children with special needs can learn from their typically developing peers, and those typically developing peers have so much to learn from children with special needs.”

Nenadov agrees on the value of inclusive child-care options, which mimic real society where people live and work side-by-side regardless of ability.

“At the end of the day we all go to the same grocery store; we are all in this world together. We all belong, and I don’t think anyone should be excluded for what they have going on. We all have health issues or things we deal with on a daily basis, but we’re still able to be in the same places,” Nenadov says.

Finding child-care providers prepared to meet the needs of children with special needs is particularly challenging.Both Wagner and Nenadov encourage families not to give up and to reach out for help from the BAISD or other community services, including Early On, Starting Strong, or Early Head Start. For a listing of preschool and home-service programs for children ages 0-5, click here.

Nenadov, a tireless advocate for Marlia, is hopeful for her daughter’s future education. “To me, everywhere is a place for anybody. She belongs in this world and she deserves to be with other kids.”
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