How to Get Started with Regional Center
Regional Centers are a statewide network of local agencies that serve children and adults with developmental disabilities. They provide assessments, therapeutic and other services, and case management services.
For children under three years old, Regional Center can provide access to federally mandated early intervention services (called Early Start in California), which may include everything from speech and occupational therapy to funding for durable medical equipment. Early intervention services are critically important to helping children gain the tools and support they need to work toward their developmental milestones. Children over age three may also qualify for funding for certain services.
There are two ways to be eligible for Regional Center services:
Your child is under age three and has been diagnosed with, or is at risk of, developmental delays or disabilities.
Your child is over age three and has a “substantial disability” that is expected to continue indefinitely. (A substantial disability is defined as a disability that results in “significant functional limitations” in three or more areas.)
If you believe your child is eligible and want to take advantage of Regional Center services, here’s a quick rundown of how to get started. (For a deeper dive, our Regional Center 101 article covers all the basics of what services they provide and who is eligible.)
How to Find Your Regional Center
Which Regional Center you apply to is determined by your zip code. To look up your nearest Regional Center, use the California Department of Developmental Services (DDS) website. If you’re in LA County, click the blue "Los Angeles County" tab, enter your zip code, and press the search icon. If you're outside Los Angeles, click the "California" tab before entering your zip code.
If your child is under the age of three, start the application process by calling the Early Start intake number listed with your Regional Center’s contact information. If your child is over the age of three, call the main phone number provided.
How to Apply to Regional Center: Step by Step
When you reach out to your Regional Center, an intake counselor or service coordinator will gather some basic information from you and send you an application form to complete. Chris Arroyo, regional manager at the California State Council on Developmental Disabilities, says to send a follow-up letter via registered mail so that you have written proof of your correspondence. Hear more of Arroyo’s tips in this clip:
After your Regional Center receives the completed application form, the intake counselor will call and make an appointment to meet with you.
Now is a good time to gather the following documents, which you will need during the intake meeting:
Your child’s birth certificate and Social Security number
Insurance and/or Medi-Cal information
Copies of your child’s medical records
You will be asked to sign a HIPAA release so that the Regional Center can request records from your child’s providers, but providing copies directly to your Regional Center will expedite the intake process.
Names and addresses of all the medical professionals/service providers who have already seen your child
Within fifteen days, the intake counselor will meet with you to learn about your child’s developmental history. Arroyo says that at this meeting, “The Regional Center should have some materials about the services they can offer, what the intake process is like, and what the future next steps are.”
The intake staff will look at your paperwork and any existing evaluations to determine whether they need to conduct their own assessment of your child to determine eligibility. If an assessment is needed, it must be completed within 60 to 120 days of your initial contact. Once it’s complete, you will receive a phone call and letter from the intake counselor informing you whether or not your child has been found eligible to receive ongoing Regional Center services.
If your child is eligible, a counselor assigned to work with you will contact you within thirty days to schedule a meeting to develop your child’s Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP) for Early Start or Individualized Program Plan (IPP) for children ages three and older. (For more on these, see our article here.) If your child is found not eligible, Regional Center can refer you to other resources in your community. You have the right to appeal a finding of ineligibility (more on this below).
Arroyo explains that the above procedures and timelines are mandated by the Lanterman Act, which “creates the Regional Centers, defines their role, and talks about how they need to operate, what their obligations are, and what rights those who are involved in the system have — both those who receive services directly as well as families.”
Lisa Concoff Kronbeck, Undivided’s Public Benefits Specialist, recommends that parents — especially those who are brand-new to Regional Center — take time to review the Rights Under the Lanterman Act (RULA) manual before the first IFSP/IPP meeting. This manual is written in plain language to help everyone understand the rights that the state guarantees to individuals with developmental disabilities and how to access vital services.
Once your child has received approval for Regional Center eligibility, the next step will be to meet with a service coordinator to develop an IFSP or IPP to document your child’s needs and goals and establish which services your child will receive. You can learn more about this in our article What to Expect at Your First Individualized Program Plan (IPP) Meeting.
What If Your Regional Center Application Is Denied?
If your application to Regional Center is denied because your child is deemed ineligible, you can appeal the decision or contact the Office of Clients Rights Advocacy. For children ages 0 to 36 months, we cover this process in detail in our article, How to Appeal a Regional Center Denial for Early Intervention.
Arroyo says that if you initially received a denial from one Regional Center but have since moved and are now in another zip code, you can apply to the new Regional Center you’re zoned for. If circumstances have changed since your first application, you could be found eligible for services.
Children with and without an official diagnosis may receive early intervention services, but Regional Center eligibility is more narrow for children over age three, and a formal diagnosis is required. (However, there is now a special provisional eligibility status for some three- and four-year-olds.) If your child is over the age of three and you’ve received a denial for services, read more about the Regional Center appeal process.
Are Regional Center Services Free?
There is a family cost participation fee for some services based on income. This is waived if your child is a Medi-Cal recipient. If your child does not qualify for Medi-Cal due to your family income, you may be able to request a referral from Regional Center for Medi-Cal’s Home and Community-Based Services for the Developmentally Disabled (HCBS-DD) waiver. Regional Center service coordinators will usually refer to this as the “institutional deeming waiver.”
It’s important to keep in mind that Regional Center is the payer of last resort, which means they are required by law to use all available resources — including insurance, state and federal programs, and the public school system — before funding services or equipment. You can learn more about this and other sources of support in our Guide to Funding Resources.
Starting Your Journey with Regional Center
“Regional Center can be an incredibly useful system that can support you in achieving the life that your child deserves,” Arroyo says. Learn more about the benefits of Regional Center in this clip:
We know that it can seem daunting when you’re just starting your Regional Center journey, so feel free to reach out to us if you have questions!