HUNDREDS of children with special needs are being forced to wait for over a year for an initial assessment of speech and language problems.
New figures reveal that some 1,639 children were on an HSE waiting list for more than 12 months before being able to avail of the service.
Close to 3,400 children were left on the waiting list for up to eight months, according to information obtained by Fianna Fail TD for Galway East Colm Keaveney.
In total, some 15,776 children with special needs were on the waiting list last year just to gain access to an initial assessment by a therapist. Experts say the assessments are a vital support for children in need of speech, language, occupational and physio therapies.
Many of the children who are seeking the services do not yet have a diagnosis. The State is legally obliged to provide speedy assessments for those under six; however, the obligation does not extend to older children.
Waiting times in Dublin and commuter belts are higher than in rural areas, according to figures released by the HSE.
The figures are revealed after the HSE confirmed that there were no early intervention teams in Dublin and parts of Cork for children in need of different therapies.
Mr Keaveney last night said the figures illustrated the "shocking gaps in state support for children with disabilities".
"These latest revelations are further evidence that the HSE's service for the basic assessment and treatment of children with disabilities is grossly inadequate. It makes a complete mockery of the whole concept of 'early intervention'," Mr Keaveney said.
The former Labour chairman said he believed children, particularly in Dublin, were being left "high and dry as they wait for months on end for a basic assessment of their needs".
He added: "To allow this to continue would be a national disgrace. The situation may be far graver in Dublin and Leinster, but the waiting times and gaps in Early Intervention Teams in all parts of the country are unacceptable."
The Special Needs Parents Association last night said the long waiting times were having a devastating impact on families.
"It kills me to hear the desperation in the voices of mothers and fathers who just want their children to be assessed," chairwoman Lorraine Dempsey told the Irish Independent.
"The numbers are nothing short of a disgrace. It's quite clear to us that there is still not a real value placed on our children."