Mississippi screens fewer young children for developmental delays than any other state in the country, according to a new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics, an oversight that costs Mississippi students dearly later in life, according to the study’s authors.

Only 17 percent of Mississippi children receive developmental screenings, which diagnose everything from lags in motor skills and speech to autism spectrum disorders before a child’s third birthday. In contrast, over 60 percent of children in Oregon, which has the highest rate in the United States, receive developmental screenings. The national average is 30 percent.

Fifteen percent of children in the United States experience developmental delays or disabilities, according to the study. These screenings are the first step for getting those children into early intervention programs. And these programs are the most crucial part of leveling the academic playing field for many of these children, according to Dr. Ashley Hirai, a senior health scientist for the Health Resources and Services Administration and the lead author on the study.

“They’re critical in terms of early intervention,” Hirai said. “Identifying those delays and disabilities early promotes educational success and school readiness.”

In short, if a child who needs early intervention doesn’t receive it before starting pre-kindergarten or kindergarten “they’re already starting at a disadvantage,” Hirai said, noting that therapy can address many of these delays.

For the most part, pediatricians work with parents on these screenings, assessing them through a checklist at three points before their third birthday: nine months, 18 months and 35 months. As a result, factors such as a family’s income, a parent’s educational history and insurance status can influence how likely a child is to get screened.

Mississippi, which has the nation’s highest poverty rate and one of its lowest insured rates, regularly ranks at the bottom in measures of health and child welfare. In June, the nonprofit Annie E. Casey Foundation ranked Mississippi 48th in child well-being in its annual Kids Count report. It was the first time in 25 years, Mississippi had not come in 49th or 50th.

One of the areas of child well-being where Mississippi continues to struggle is its high school completion rate. Twenty-five percent of Mississippi students don’t complete high school, according to Kids Count. The national average is 16 percent.

Children whose delays or disabilities go untreated are less likely to finish school than those who receive early intervention, according to data. And adults who don’t finish school are less likely to have steady employment and more likely to be uninsured and experience poverty, all factors that can influence whether their own child receives a proper developmental screening — potentially creating a self-reinforcing cycle.

“It’s frustrating,” Hirai said. “It’s even more important to address these developmental delays and disabilities in lower income households.”

Even so, Hirai said, family income had far less to do with the likelihood that a child received on-time screening than the state where that family lived. The JAMA report notes that between 2016 and 2006, when the American Academy of Pediatrics expanded guidelines for developmental screenings, dozens of states participated in national programs to change their policies and practices of screenings. Mississippi, however, was not one of those.

That changed last fall, however, with a $10.5 million grant from the federal Health Resources and Services Administration. The three-year program, which launched in January, is a partnership between the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s Center for Advancement of Youth and Mississippi State’s Social Science Research Center geared towards improving early childhood health in Mississippi.

“Mississippi has an opportunity to set a national model for improving the health and well-being of children,” said former U.S. Senator Thad Cochran, who lobbied for the funding, in a statement last fall.

Hirai said this lofty goal isn’t impossible. Ten years ago, she said, Oregon, which now leads the nation in early childhood screenings, had the lowest screening rate in the country. “Lower even than Mississippi,” she said.

“So it really shows what those (state) level efforts and quality improvement efforts can do,” she said.

The Child Health and Development Project has set a goal of reaching 60 percent of children in the state by the year 2020, through either promotional materials or developmental screenings.

“The health and development problems we face in Mississippi have been well documented. We believe this new collaborative initiative will positively impact the lives of many of our most vulnerable children,” said Linda Southward, the project leader for Mississippi State, in a statement.

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Larrison Campbell is a Greenville native who reports on politics with an emphasis on public health. She received a bachelor’s from Wesleyan University and a master’s from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.Larrison is a 2018 National Press Foundation fellow in public health, a 2019 Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of Massachusetts fellow in health care reporting and a 2019 Center for Health Journalism National Fellow.