Hamilton pediatrician says kids 'sinking' because of psych test wait times

Oppressively long wait times for student learning disability tests are a major concern for pediatricians in Hamilton and doctors and educators need to advocate for change, says a leading pediatrician.

'I don’t know anyone who has gotten tested within 18 months'

In a system that's supposed to be equal for all children, there is a growing problem with wait times for a service called psychoeducational testing. These tests are conducted by board consultants and are used to determine if a child has a learning disability. Without it, students can’t access vital special education resources. (iStock)

A leading Hamilton pediatrician says oppressively long wait times for specialized educational tests are one of the biggest challenges she and her colleagues face in dealing with children with learning disabilities.

And Dr. Kristen Hallett, the clinical Lead of the general pediatric inpatient unit at McMaster University’s Department of Pediatrics disputes Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board statistics that it manages to test half the students on its list within six months to a year. 

“I don’t know anyone who has gotten tested within 18 months,” she told CBC Hamilton. 

As parents find themselves frustrated while their children wait years for testing that opens up access special education support and resources, it’s time for doctors and officials to advocate for changes to be made in a flawed system, says Dr. Hallett.

“Our biggest struggle is advocating for these kids in this situation with testing,” Hallett said. “It’s like banging your head against the wall.

“It’s sink or swim – and these kids are sinking.”

The resources have not been allocated in a way that services our kids and our future.- Dr. Kristen Hallett, clinical Lead of the general pediatric inpatient unit at McMaster University’s Department of Pediatrics

In a system that's supposed to be equal for all children, there is a growing problem with wait times for the psycho-educational testing. The tests are conducted by board psychologists and are used to determine if a child has a learning disability. Without one, a student can’t access vital special education resources.

Hundreds of kids are on the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board’s waiting list to be tested. But wealthier parents can pay for the testing themselves at a private clinic and buy their way out of the line. The testing is available for a fee of $2,000 to $3,500 – but many parents can’t afford that. A private psychologist who does the tests says families frequently come to her clinic after getting fed up with the wait at the board.

That raises issue of unequal access for kids who are most vulnerable – those with learning disabilities in low-income areas who can't afford to pay for private tests. It’s important enough that Hallett and other pediatricians raised the issue in a meeting with NDP MP Chris Charlton this week that was organized as a talk on how to advocate for patients.

Wait times creep over 18 months

The school board says it’s doing everything it can to get students tested with the resources it has, but Hallett says it’s not nearly enough. “They’re not even making a dent,” she said. “What we’re advocating for the most in our offices is learning problems.

“If we only saw learning and attention problems, our offices would be full for the rest of our lives.”

The board says 405 students are currently on its list for testing. It says over half of students are tested in six months to a year, while another 20 per cent are seen within six months.

But, it says 12 per cent wait between a year and 15 months and 14 per cent – or one in seven – wait over 15 months.

Like Hallett, a teacher who works in a lower city school in the area of special education questions those numbers. She asked that her name not be used for fears over repercussions at work.

She told CBC Hamilton most of the students on her list have been waiting over two years – and she has no idea if they’ll be tested this year at all. "I can’t make any decisions because these kids are just rotting on a list,” she said.

As for the board saying most students are tested within one school year? “It’s definitely not like that here,” she said. “These kids can’t wait two years. Two years is huge for decision-making timelines – it’s not fair and it’s not okay.”

A provincial issue, school board says

After CBC Hamilton ran a story on the issue Wednesday, several parents came forward to say their kids have been waiting too long, too.

Krista Bradley’s son is in Grade 7 and has been on the waiting list to be tested for two years with no end in sight. “When I first requested the testing, I was told the wait was approximately one year,” she said. “I was given the option of paying out of pocket for testing, but I'm unable to afford the cost. It's a very unfair system that's in place. It's heartbreaking to watch a child struggle.”

The HWDSB says it knows how important this testing is, and is doing everything it can to provide services to special needs students, Shelly Woon, the superintendent of leadership and learning with the board told CBC Hamilton earlier

"Many parents feel they’re on a wait list too long,” Woon said in a previous interview. "And that’s a provincial concern.” This is an Ontario issue, she says, not simply a Hamilton one.

Woon says the problem is funding. With a finite budget the board has decided to allocate more money into programming than testing. The goal is to have as much programming available as possible for students with special needs. The alternative, she says, is lots of testing – but fewer programs at the other end of the tunnel.

More parents are also pushing for testing, which is contributing to a backlog in the system. There were 346 students on the waiting list in December. By January, that number had jumped to 405. The board tries to address economic inequality by allocating more tests to schools in lower-income, higher-needs areas.

Demand outpacing needs

The Board has clinical psychologists on staff who do the tests and straddle psychologist and educator roles. They test for things like intelligence, memory and hand-eye coordination, as well as reading, writing and academic skills.

Dr. Marnee Maroes conducts psycho-educational testing for a fee at Hamilton Psychological Services, a private clinic. She says the testing is time intensive, as each takes about six to 10 hours spread out over several meetings. A test from her office costs $2,700. Maroes does see parents who express exasperation with the wait times in the public school board.

“That is generally when someone would look to private testing,” she said. “In the public system they’re doing their very best to do what they can with the resources they have.

“But the demand is vastly outpacing the needs. They’re absolutely buried in demand.”

But buried in demand or not, the school board and the province both need to examine the issue and do something to alleviate these wait times, Hallett says.

“There’s a flaw in the system,” she said. “The resources have not been allocated in a way that services our kids and our future.”