Warren Barker and his nine-year-old son Quinn Barker-Brown at their Barrhaven home.
Julie Oliver / Postmedia
Did Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government freeze access to therapy for autistic children last fall, misleading parents and leaving vulnerable children in limbo?The question came to a head over the weekend when documents, including a set of talking points, were released to the media. The documents suggested the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services was trying to control the message given to parents. In one email to staff, a manager in another jurisdiction noted the ministry “has asked us not to stray outside of their messaging.”The issue boiled over Monday during question period at Queen’s Park.Lisa MacLeod, the embattled minister of children, community and social services, told the legislature that allegations the program was frozen are “erroneous,” and that if the program had continued under changes introduced by the Liberals, it faced bankruptcy.
Lisa Macleod, Ontario’s Children, Community and Social Services Minister
Chris Young /
THE CANADIAN PRESS
NDP leader Andrea Horwath shot back that the province would be be bankrupting families with its new program.NDP MPP Monique Taylor was ejected from the legislature after accusing the government of “lying” to parents. Ottawa West-Nepean Progressive Conservative MPP Jeremy Roberts, who has a sibling with autism, did not stand up to applaud statements made by Premier Doug Ford and MacLeod, who is the MPP for Nepean. (A spokesman for Robert said he would not comment on the incident.) Ottawa South MPP John Fraser said parents had lost confidence in MacLeod and needed “a fresh set of eyes and ears” on the issue.Meanwhile, the ministry released a statement saying agencies were instructed last October to bring in only new clients in three priority areas.“At no point did Minister MacLeod instruct the Ministry of Children, Community and Social services to freeze the wait list,” said the statement. “These families were prioritized for services and supports following changes made to the Ontario Autism Program in January 2018, which placed significant funding pressures on the program budget that could not be supported within the allocated budget. Minister MacLeod secured the necessary investment upon taking office.” In an interview Monday, Alex Munter, the president and CEO of CHEO, said that as of July 2018, the autism program at CHEO was facing a $8.2 million shortfall in a $25-million program because of the changes introduced in January 2018. As a result of the shortfall, CHEO cut discretionary expenses in the program and imposed a hiring freeze. CHEO also asked the province for more funding. “The shortfall would have had impacted services through CHEO,” Munter said. The autism program is different from the rest of the programs at CHEO, he said. In most other treatment areas, clinicians make decisions. In this program, the government dictates which children get services and how much. The program has been rebooted four times in the past three years and changing criteria has been hard for families, Munter said. But parents who called CHEO would have been told that if their child was not in one of the priority groups they would not be admitted into the program. “The reality is that we were working with a major budget shortage that we were trying to manage,” he said. “I can see why people thought we should have been more public. But we don’t normally start negotiations in a public kind of way. Our first step is to bring it to government.” Munter noted the issue has become a highly polarized, partisan debate. “We’re not going to participate in that.” It is still unclear how much individual families will receive under the new program, known as the “childhood budget,” which is targeted at low and middle-income families. It will depend on how long the child remains in the program. A child who enters the program at age two could receive as much as $140,000, but another child entering the program at seven could only receive as much as $55,000. Many parents are concerned they won’t meet the income test and will get little or nothing. Sherri Brown, the mother of nine-year-old Quinn, said her son has been on the wait list ever since she moved to Ontario in September 2017 from British Columbia. “Thirty hours a week would change the entire trajectory of his disability. I wish I could afford 30 hours a week. I can’t,” Brown said. The priority categories set by the province are “cherry-picking” who would receive services, she said. “For our kids, every months makes a difference. To halt a wait list for six months in unconscionable. This is a neurological disorder. Six months is forever.”Meanwhile, Brown argues that funding for autism should be covered under the province’s Health Ministry, not the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services. “Three independent medical professionals have indicated that Quinn needs this level of treatment. It’s the gold standard of treatment for children with autism,” she said.“A three-year wait list wouldn’t fly for children with cancer. But it flies for our children.”email@example.com ALSO IN THE NEWS:Police manslaughter trial: Court sees constable’s red-stained gloves, other evidence from scene of Abdi arrestThe Havana Syndrome: Why Canadian diplomats have accused their government of abandoning themChateau Laurier design adds stoney pavilions at northern corners of addition