The province will post autism wait-list numbers online — and update them monthly — in a bid to be more “open and transparent” and rebuild trust, says Children, Community and Social Services Minister Todd Smith.
Smith, who spoke about the controversial autism file after making an announcement Wednesday in Ottawa with Health Minister Christine Elliott, said in a later statement that “families and the public deserve to know how we are working to provide care. This is one of my top priorities.”
He said the number of children with autism who are waiting for services has gone up to 24,924, with another 10,365 currently receiving therapies.
While a recent report from a backbench MPP suggested the government’s original 23,000-child wait-list was “unverified,” and “likely inaccurate,” the ministry has said its numbers are based on those submitted by nine regional service providers.
But in a scathing analysis, MPP Roman Baber (York Centre) also urged the Ford government to “retreat” from the original autism plan and instead create one “predicated on accurate and nonconfrontational messaging.”
Smith took over the ministry from Lisa MacLeod, who earlier this year announced a revamp of the Ontario autism program that aimed to clear the wait-list and give parents control over how to spend the funding they receive — although it also spread the funding to more children, based on their age and family income, meaning huge losses for some.
Following an outcry from advocates and families, who said the funding falls far short of the actual costs of the therapies their children require, MacLeod pledged an extra $300 million and promised to reform the system to be more needs-based.
Smith said that so far, $4.4 million of that extra funding has been distributed to 260 families.
“This file is far too important to be dealt with in isolation,” he said, calling for a broader strategy on autism.
“There is a need for a national conversation, about how all levels of government can bring more to the table to help children and youth with autism. I would welcome the opportunity to discuss how we address the patchwork of services across Canada, to improve the lives of children and their families.”
Smith also said that it’s time to “fix the ineffective, disjointed patchwork of supports we inherited from the previous government, and ensure children and families living with autism receive care.”
The government will post the number of children on wait-lists for autism services, as well as the number of children receiving therapies.
New Democrat Monique Taylor, her party’s critic on the issue, said, “Doug Ford has failed the families whose children depend on autism services.”
The premier, she added, “can try to change ministers, and to change stories about the wait-list, but the fact remains that Doug Ford’s deep cuts to autism programming are to blame. Families need not only apologies, not only monthly updates on the wait-list, but they need immediate action – a fully funded Ontario autism program that provides support and services based on need.”
Writing in the Star on Tuesday, Liberal leadership hopeful and former children’s minister Michael Coteau noted that Baber had called the autism revamp “the toughest and most damaging file” of the Ford government’s first year in office.
Coteau said Smith needs to first “clear the air and to restore trust” and urged the government to go beyond the current expert panel and “bring parents and service providers to the table to listen to them directly. The expert panel is a good start, but I believe hearing from as many voices as possible, as freely and openly as possible, will also help.”
Shortly after his move to the children’s ministry, Smith said he would embark on a “listening tour” across the province.
Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy