Parents rally against Ford government’s autism changes

Posted on March 8, 2019 in Child & Family Policy Context

Source: — Authors: – Politics/Provincial Politics
March 7, 2019.   By

Julie Charbonneau and her 9-year-old son, Cooper, were among hundreds who descended on Queen’s Park Thursday for a rally against the Ford government’s changes to Ontario’s autism program.

Cooper is on a wait list for treatment, which the new system will clear. And his family, who live in Fergus, will even qualify for a bit of provincial funding to cover behavioural therapy for which his parents currently pay thousands of dollars.

But Charbonneau says neither she nor Cooper can support the new autism plan because they’re worried about thousands of families that will end up with less provincial funding, and also the impact the changes will have on the school system.

“I have autism,” Cooper said, bundled up in a snowsuit and hockey toque, standing beside his mom in the snow on the front lawn of the legislature. “There are so many people that have autism, they need good funding.

“Everyone deserves what they need.”

The protest, which saw busloads of families arrive from as far away as Ottawa, Sudbury and Windsor, was the first of what the Ontario Autism Coalition say will be parents’ unrelenting pressure on the government to scrap the plan.

Coalition president Laura Kirby-McIntosh is the mother of two children with autism. She said parents “fought the Liberals when they cut off treatment at age 6, and then later at age 5, and now we’re protesting against the Conservatives.”

“This is not a partisan issue,” she added.

Under changes announced last month by Community and Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod, the government is boosting spending to clear a wait list of 23,000 children and giving families limited budgets to choose the services they want.

Depending on their income, parents will be eligible for up to $20,000 a year for children under 6, with 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.

Critics have said those amounts fall far short, as children with severe needs can require up to $80,000 a year in therapy.

The changes have school boards warning they don’t have the resources to support autistic children who are expected to flood the public system when they lose their current levels of service on April 1.

“My biggest concern for (Cooper) is that all of these kids are suddenly going to lose their services,” and will turn to their local school at a time when the government has also urged a hiring freeze, Charbonneau said.

“He has educational assistants who help him, as well as other resources at the school dedicated to him, and with this influx of kids there will be no more help to go around,” she said.

“I think the system is failing and should be based on need.”

The Ministry of Education has begun asking school boards what supports they require after a number wrote letters of concern to both MacLeod and Education Minister Lisa Thompson.

The Toronto Catholic District School Board was preparing to send a letter after discussing the issue at a meeting Thursday night.

MPPs could hear parents protesting outside the legislature Thursday as NDP Leader Andrea Horwath reminded Premier Doug Ford that he’d pledged to support families of children with autism “1,000 per cent,” and that they wouldn’t have to protest like they did under the Liberal government.

Horwath called the new autism program an “absolute disaster.”

Ford said he’s “talked to hundreds of parents and families of children with autism, and it breaks my heart talking to them. As I’ve said over and over again, this is the hardest file I’ve ever dealt with, bar none.

“But when we came into office, we saw a bankrupt system when it comes to supporting families of children with autism … We had to run to the president of the treasury board right here to ask for $100 million just to keep the system going. Then, when we looked into it even further, we saw systemic problems throughout the whole system.”

MacLeod also said the new plan will end the current one that serves just one of four children, which she has called unconscionable.

The Progressive Conservative plan will provide funding to more children, but many parents currently receiving funding — like Suzanne Gomes of Durham Region — will get less.

Gomes said her 7-year-old daughter has flourished with 20 hours of intense therapy over five days each week.

“We waited three years for her to get” therapy, Gomes said. “She wasn’t toilet-trained, she wasn’t speaking a lot, she wasn’t communicating, she wasn’t making eye contact.”

Now, Gomes said, “she’s out of diapers, she’ll interact with people and that’s all being lost with her being kicked out of therapy” at a centre in Whitby.

The single mother teared up when she said she “can’t afford the $60,000 difference in funding,” under the PC system, which she is urging the government to scrap.

With files from Rob Ferguson

Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics.

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