The provincial government quietly ordered autism service providers last September to stop admitting new children for therapy and to keep parents in the dark about the move, documents obtained by the Star reveal.
Internal documents — from the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services and senior administrators of nine regional service providers — state that the 23,000-child wait-list for autism therapy was closed because of “financial pressures.”
Front-line therapists who would have otherwise been working with these children were ordered to fill their time with other tasks such as conducting workshops, according to the confidential emails and memos.
The government announced earlier this month that it plans to clear a 23,000-child wait-list for services by giving more children less autism therapy.
The documents obtained by the Star reveal that the waiting list for therapy has been closed for five months unbeknownst to parents. And while therapists could have been seeing new children during that time, they were instead ordered to spend their extra time elsewhere.
In a written statement provided to the Star, Children’s Minister Lisa MacLeod angrily denied the allegation: “It is disturbing and disgraceful that there are suggestions of artificially inflating the wait-list. Anyone playing politics with these families and continuing to push this false narrative should be ashamed.”
As of April 1, families will qualify for up to $20,000 a year for each child under 6 — up to a lifetime maximum of $140,000. Children older than that can access up to $5,000 a year up to age 18, to a lifetime maximum of $55,000.
However, amounts are based on a sliding scale depending on family income, and only those earning less than $55,000 in net income will qualify for the entire amount.
A Sept. 27 email to staff from a senior administrator at one service provider states: “As of this afternoon, we have been asked to ‘pause’ on making calls to families (on the wait-list) … We have been assured that this is very short term, and as soon as we get more information from the ministry on how to proceed we will share it.”
Another email to staff from a service provider the following month reveals how the ministry wanted inquiries from parents to be handled: “Note that the ministry has asked us not to stray outside of their messaging (e.g. we would not tell families directly that there will be no service offers…”
A December email to staff from an administrator of a service provider, marked “confidential,” states: “Just a friendly note to let you know that the general public and other agencies outside the (Ontario Autism Program) behavioural services providers are not aware of the ‘hold’ that we currently have on our behavioural services until March 31st. Please do not share this information with others — this in internal information only.”
An undated ministry memo, titled “Key Messages and Questions and Answers” gives service providers direction on how to handle difficult inquiries from staff and families.
On how to explain to therapists that they will no longer be servicing new families off the wait-list, the memo advises employers to say that they “are being asked to redirect resources to help manage costs and service expectations until we can better understand availability of resources and support services.”
On how to “support family concerns about a growing wait list and longer wait times,” the memo says nothing about revealing the list has been closed. Rather it directs service providers to say that the government acknowledges that families have been waiting a long time and that it has not been easy to manage expectations.
The memo goes on to indicate other ways front-line therapists could use their time: “In the interim, available services and supports are to be provided to families, including foundational parent/caregiver services such as workshops, groups and seminars about (autism spectrum disorder), brief consultation and information on applied behavioural analysis.”
In an interview, one therapist said that she and her co-workers could have been helping new children on the wait-list all this time.
“There was capacity. We did have space on our caseload to pick up children from the wait list but we couldn’t,” said the therapist who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to give media interviews.
Another therapist, speaking on the condition of anonymity for the same reason, argued that there are far fewer than 23,000 children on the waiting list. But by freezing the list, the government has allowed the numbers to grow in an attempt to justify its changes, he charged.
MacLeod defended the changes: “Our government inherited a broke and broken system that ignored 75 per cent of children with autism.”
The Ford government is pumping an additional $100 million into helping children with autism, allowing more of them to access supports earlier, MacLeod said. The changes will also speed up the diagnostic process so that families can make informed decisions quickly, she said.
In a statement released Sunday, Michael Coteau, MPP for Don Valley East, said MacLeod has lost the confidence of the general public and families with children with autism and she should step down as minister.
“A new Minister needs to step in, listen to families and advocates and hit the reset button on this flawed program” the statement said. “We need to work together to ensure we do what’s best for children in this province.”
With files from Kristin Rushowy
Theresa Boyle is a Toronto-based reporter covering health. Follow her on Twitter: @theresaboyle
Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy