Michele Rogers - Member of the Month

IDA honors Michele Rogers as our Member of the Month. Michele is an active and valuable member of our policy committee, and we thank her for her membership and service. Read about how Michele became interested in both early intervention and policy.

Michele Rogers doing what she loves best— playing with babies!The journey that led to a career in Early Intervention
Michele began her professional life with an undergraduate degree in Journalism from CSU Fresno. She always wanted to be a writer, influenced as many young girls are by the heroine Jo, in the classic book Little Women. After college, Michele began working as a writer in the wine industry in Sonoma County. Although she enjoyed her job, she eventually decided that she really wanted to do something to make a a difference in the world, particularly for children. Michele went to work for the National Association of Neonatal Nurses (NANN) as their communications director and also became a certified Childbirth Education Instructor and Lactation Specialist. After a few years, still using her journalism writing skill, she went to work for United Cerebral Palsy as a fund raiser and grant writer and then hopped over to Easter Seals as a Program Manager. Over time, she decided that she wanted to be more locally focused rather than working at such large organizations.

That is when Michele had the opportunity to help co-found The Early Learning Institute (ELI) to serve local families in Sonoma County, where she is still the Executive Director. ELI is now 22 years old but operates on the original core principles that Michele and the other founders of ELI felt were critically important guide posts for any EI Vendor: flexibility, family centered and community responsive.

Along the way, Michele finished course work for a nursing degree with hopes of being a nurse-midwife but due to a variety of circumstances, she ended up with an MA in Public Health Education. Michele then went on to earn her doctorate in neurobiology, with a specialization in infant mental health. Michele is a Napa Infant-Parent Mental Health Fellow, something that changed completely her approach to Early Intervention. She believes every early interventionist should be integrating early childhood mental health concepts with early intervention. Michele pointed out that just in her county alone, the lives of young children under the age of 5 have been filled with four years of wildfires, a school shooting, earthquakes, windstorms and now a pandemic. With young children experiencing so much trauma at such a young age, it is critically important that we do a better job integrating infant mental health with early intervention.

CDC Learn the Signs Act Early
For the past 4 years, Michele has served as one of two California Ambassadors for the CDC’s Learn the Signs, Act Early (LTSAE) initiative, a federal program that provides tools and resources that empower parents to monitor their child’s development and move them to support and services, if needed. LTSAE is meant to be a complement to Early Start child find as a free, caregiver-monitoring app. The milestones are updated frequently, and the CDC recently updated its current version of the app.

During the pandemic, as the Northern California Ambassador Michele worried about California’s Early Start referral numbers, as they tumbled to as low as 30% of normal across California during the pandemic. The CDC offered California Ambassadors the opportunity to secure a grant, whose primary goal was to help get the message out to caregivers that they can refer their child themselves directly to Early Start services. Through a needs assessment survey, the Ambassadors found that most caregivers think they need to get a referral from their pediatrician or another professional. Waiting for a referral slows down the process which was already stalled as many parents weren’t keeping up with well checks during the pandemic.

The team also found that many Early Start referral portals are local and not well advertised. Michele pointed out that even in the best of times people often don’t know that EI services exist until they need them or know someone who has used them. The California Ambassadors decided using social media in a more strategic way to spread awareness to caregivers was the best approach, especially when everyone was working remotely due to the pandemic. This project has helped to return referrals to EI programs to near normal numbers, in most areas of the state.

Where are the other EI people?
When Michele co-founded ELI in 1999, she began searching as a new agency leader for individuals asking for answers to the same questions about policies and practices in running an EI agency. She attended ICC (California’s Interagency Coordinating Council on Early Intervention) meetings and became familiar with IDA and one of its founders, Fran Chasen. Michele and Fran began to work together to create leadership strands at IDA conferences, such as, “Walk a Mile in My Shoes” and, “I Don’t Have Enough Heads for This Many Hats” that benefited new EI agency leaders who were grappling with the same issues. Michele shared that as a leader, there are many difficult tasks that you were not overtly trained for, such as counseling a mother who just lost a child, balancing caseloads when half your staff is pregnant, and simply managing differences in opinion and political viewpoints. Michele feels that IDA’s new brown bag conversations with leaders are really valuable as a support because when you are supervising people and dealing with rapidly changing community circumstances (like a pandemic) you need to share information and ideas with others in supervisory roles.

Importance of IDA policy committee’s work in California
Michele expressed her long held belief that IDA has a really important role to play across California as the entity that insures that our youngest children don’t get forgotten in a huge complex system. Children entering the disability world usually start with Early Intervention, and most people agree that this is a critical time for service and families. But since this is the smallest part of the Regional Center system, EI services are often a left over, or last minute thought as policy and budgets are put together. Unfortunately, Early Start often doesn’t do a great job generating sound bites to speak to political leaders and grant providers, because we are so busy serving infants and families. Michele believes we must figure out how to professionalize and advocate for ourselves. She wants to help IDA’s Policy Committee to spread important sound bites such as, “For every dollar spent in early intervention we can save seven dollars in general education later” or that the “National Early Intervention Longitudinal Study (NEILS) Special Education and Part C Programs tracked children with a developmental delay and found 46% did not need special education by the time they reached kindergarten.” Michele is excited to see many more important new voices coming onto the IDA Policy Committee. Not only has the committee grown, there is more ethnic and gender diversity, as well as better geographic diversity, with new members representing the many different communities across the state of California, even outside the major cities. Michele is proud of the work the Policy Committee has done over the past several years of becoming a bigger part of the advocacy world, such as with the Lanterman Coalition, where IDA’s voice is sought out and respected. Michele also acknowledged improvements in the Policy Committee integrating with other colleagues in groups such as First Five, childcare, and early childhood.

Biggest challenge for early intervention in California
Michele believes that the biggest challenge facing early intervention, from a policy stand point, in the coming year, is simplifying the message of why the ABX2-1 rate study presented in March of 2019 by consulting firm Burns and Associates to the California legislature was flawed. This rate study is to be used by DDS over the next 5 years to standardize and potentially increase rates. For EI vendors, the study recommends rate cuts in many cases, which will have a devastating effect on programs and providers. As Michele explains, the major flaw is in the productivity formula that the consulting firm used. The Arizona consulting group who performed the rate study failed to consider all the many factors that affect productivity in early intervention, especially with respect to California such as, 20%-25% cancellation rates, transient families, medically fragile infants, geographic spread, traffic patterns and many other challenges. The worry is, if the rate study is not fixed, EI programs will not get increases, or may even take rate cuts, and will also be faced with a complicated tier system of payment, depending on field staff educational levels. It will become even more difficult than it already is to maintain any level of pay scale and attract new people to the early intervention field. Attracting qualified early intervention employees who are compensated fairly is a continuing challenge, as wages are already not keeping up with housing prices in California. As Michele stressed, every Regional Center vendor advisory committee needs Early Start people on it, as the important link to fiscal people and Regional Center executive directors. At the very least, EI folks should be attending and participating in the meetings. Keep asking, “what about early start kids?”

Final thoughts
Michele describes herself as an optimist at heart, and as she pointed out, we really can’t do this work and not be generally optimistic and hopeful. Michele’s family has a personal connection to the system through her step-daughter as well as her niece and nephew, all of whom are regional center clients. She feels it is really helpful to see and know folks with intellectual disabilities, who grow up to be productive, working adults and lead great lives. And it all starts with strong Early Intervention programs.