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Autism, what's going on in Ontario?!

Published by Suzanne Jacobson

Published on February 10, 2019

Autism has been in the news non-stop in Ontario the past three weeks, ever since the Minister of Children, Community and Social Services Lisa MacLeod's announcement of the new policy changes for autism services.  MacLeod refuses to answer questions and now, reportedly, people are being hung up on as soon as the word autism is said.  

Scott Corbett's article (March 3rd, 2019) gives a good perspective on what's happening.  We are sharing it below with his permission.  

Ontario’s Autism Childhood Budgets — This is what incompetence looks like

The controversy over the Ford Government’s changes to the Ontario Autism Program isn’t going away, in fact it’s getting worse as the details of the plan are released.

What at first-glance appeared to be promising for the many parents with a child on the autism program waitlist, has turned to fear and anger as they realize the government has eliminated need-based services. The backlash the government has faced is fierce, coming from parents, family and friends of autistic children, as well as from Ontario’s autism community of behavioural experts.

But a very telling sign that the government has strayed in the wrong direction, is the criticism from typically friendly conservative-leaning media. Editorials appearing in the Post Media outlets The Ottawa Sun, and Ottawa Citizen have disapproved of the policy. Michael Taube, former speech writer to Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, penned a carefully written editorial recommending the Ford Government re-examine the policy, and noted that as conservatives they need to show compassion when it comes to protecting the less fortunate.

To be sure, the backlash is well-earned. The lack of transparency of how the new Childhood Budgets will work, has left many to question the motivation of the government, and for many the competence of Lisa MacLeod, the Minister of Children, Community and Social Services (MCCSS).

There are so many holes in this policy, it has left economist Mike Moffatt to ponder whether this policy was put together on the back of a napkin. Moffatt’s daily postings must send shivers down the backs of those on the Autism file at the MCCSS, as he dissects the policy and reveals one issue after another. It would appear that little analysis and planning went into this plan and its rollout. The whole thing is a mess, and the Ford Government knows it.

Back to the motivation. MacLeod continues to script the same talking points over and over. To her, it’s all about clearing the autism waitlist by giving money directly to parents to buy services, calling it fair and equitable. The media is having nothing of it. In media scrums after Question Period, MacLeod has looked like a deer caught in the headlights, as reporters like Cynthia Mulligan grill her on the policy and her Ministry’s waitlist freeze cover-up.

As the saying goes, the cover-up is always worse than the crime. Since the Fall of 2018 and until the end of the fiscal year, March 31, 2019, the Ministry directed government autism agencies to stop calling waitlist parents to advise them of available spaces. This has been verified by multiple news outlets based on confidential internal documents. The very people who were asked to mislead parents, now find themselves in the precarious position of losing their jobs due to the elimination of Direct Services from government backed agencies. It’s of no wonder that there are whistleblowers willing to reveal the Ministry’s directive.

The motivation of freezing the waitlist has been labelled by many observers, and government opposition parties, as a manufactured crisis to inflate the waitlist numbers. MacLeod dismisses that narrative and says it was done because the program was bankrupt. She went so far as to have her Deputy Minister, Janet Menard, release a rather peculiar statement, claiming there was no freeze, saying those who already had previous commitments were given services in the program. What the statement never addressed however, was what the Ministry was doing to those still on the waitlist with no contractual commitments. The media pushed back on MacLeod and the Ministry on their statement, saying it didn’t make any sense, and that they have contradicted themselves from previous confirmations of the freeze. The media continue to stand by their reporting that there was a waitlist freeze.

Waitlist children who were next up in line, were not moved into the program as spaces became available, and furthermore their parents were left in the dark as to why they never received a call confirming their entry into the program. Multiple behavioural analysts have also confirmed they were reporting to work without any children assigned to them. This revelation has been particularly disturbing to parents, as this has been perceived as an egregious breach of public trust.

To be sure, parents were keeping abreast of their child’s waitlist position, they knew if they were close, but what they didn’t know was they were holding onto false hope. False hope that their child was on the cusp of finally getting the therapy they’ve waited 2–3 years for. For 5 months these parents were strung along until a whistleblower finally revealed that the Ministry instructed them to hide the truth from parents. That’s 5 wasted months. Had the ministry been forthcoming, and said there was a pause in new entries into the program, these parents would have been informed and could have made alternative plans. Perhaps they would have made a choice to remortgage their home, or taken other measures to obtain financing for their child’s therapy.

So why hide this from parents? Had the whistleblower not come forward, would anyone be any wiser? Did the government just try to cover this up and then hope no one would find out? Or, as so many are wondering, did the government take a calculated move to inflate the waitlist numbers to claim the problem was bigger than it was, referring to it as a crisis? Many are wondering the facts behind the waitlist numbers. Are there 23,000 unique individuals? How many have received services in the past and have since re-applied? Is there double-counting from the merger of multiple waitlists? We may never know. But we know this, the cover-up is always worse than the crime.

Regardless of the government’s motivation, the policy itself, with its lack of details, reeks of incompetence. Moffatt doesn’t pull any punches with his analysis:

This “plan” was put together on the back of a napkin, and it shows. These plans should be done in consultations with experts, parents, adults with autism and policy wonks, not just sketched out in broad detail and thrown on a website.

In speaking to service providers who have clients from the OAP’s Direct Funding model, and who have relationships with key players on the Autism file within the Ministry, the Ministry was advising on program changes with a lack of data. Service providers were puzzled why Ministerial staff on the file claimed the program wasn’t working, only to discover the Ministry failed to consult with stakeholders, and never requested any empirical evidences.

In reality, there were many success stories of children who upon entering the program were far behind typical peers their age, only to make massive gains either catching up to their peers and entering the school system, or have narrowed the gap and are tracking towards catching up. Proof that is readily available through the charting the Behavioural Therapists do. The empirical, irrefutable evidence was simply not taken into consideration.

Why? Chalk it up to incompetence? Or were those on the file not interested in the data given the government’s desire to overhaul the system from a needs-based program, to a financial supplement scheme?

This is where we are at, just 4 weeks away from the April 1 implementation date of the Childhood Budgets. At this point, it would take a Hail Mary catch for the Ministry to pull this off by April 1, and even if they did, it won’t stop the protests. Time and time again, parents of autistic children have proven that they are relentless in advocating for what their vulnerable children deserve. Time is ticking, and it may be time for a new freeze, to do just what Michael Taube suggested, re-examine this policy and find a better path forward. By all accounts, it seems extremely unlikely the Ford Government can trust MacLeod to lead the course correction. MacLeod has created so much mistrust, and with her credibility in tatters, it’s difficult to see how she can move forward handling this file.

 

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