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Agencies Decry Ontario's Funding Of Child Autism Treatment

The Canadian Press
July 20, 2008 at 11:38 AM EDT

TORONTO - The Liberal government is failing to live up to its promises to adequately fund early therapy for autistic children, forcing some service providers to turn away families who've waited years for an expensive but crucial treatment, agencies say.

Child Care Resources, a non-profit agency in northern Ontario, will be facing a $2.5-million deficit by the end of the year if the province doesn't deliver promised funds that would cover the cost of providing intensive behavioural intervention (IBI) therapy, said Maxine King, chairwoman of the agency's board of directors.

"Our backs are against the wall at this point, as far as getting further and further into debt," Ms. King said in an interview from Sudbury.

"We knew that if this didn't get resolved, that we have a very small window of opportunity to make an immediate change."

For over a year, the Ministry of Children and Youth Services has instructed the agency to provide services to more children with the promise that additional money would follow to cover the extra costs, Ms. King said.

But officials now say the ministry doesn't have the funds to meet that shortfall, leaving Child Care Resources in the lurch with a $122,000 deficit, she said.

Children who are currently receiving help won't be cut off, but to avoid widening its deficit, the agency has no choice but to stop accepting more children who need the therapy, Ms. King said.

Some families may now have to wait up to two years for IBI therapy, rather than six months, she added.

"That's the saddest thing," Ms. King said.

"This, for many of them, was the light at the end of the tunnel - knowing that their child was on a waiting list and that they would be able to, hopefully in the near future, be receiving this therapy."

Other agencies also say they can no longer afford to provide the therapy to more children.

Markham-based Thames Valley Children's Centre, which operates in southwest Ontario, found a way to balance its books but only has enough funds to maintain its current level of service, said CEO Dr. John LaPorta.

The agency currently delivers IBI therapy to 87 autistic children, but won't be able meet its target of 101 kids this year as set by the province, he said.

Algonquin Child and Family Services, which helps to autistic children in northeast Ontario, is facing a $900,000 deficit, although it's working with the province to deal with the shortfall, said executive director Jeffrey Hawkins.

Children and Youth Services Minister Deb Matthews said provincial funding for autism services has kept pace with the number of children receiving IBI therapy, which reached 1,400 this year. The funding has more than tripled to $150-million this year from $44-million in 2003, when the Liberals was elected, she said.

But Ms. Matthews said she's also "very concerned" about the deficit at Child Care Resources, and has appointed a team to investigate why the agency is facing financial troubles.

"I've got very good people going in, because we have to get to the bottom of it. We have to understand it," she said.

"But until we get the information we need, I don't think it's fair to families to start talking about service cuts."

Surrey Place Centre in Toronto, which provides services to 330 autistic children, is not facing a deficit, said Elizabeth Scott, the agency's vice-president of autism services. It's found ways to cut costs, such as creating classrooms where children can receive IBI therapy.

Critics warn the backlog will lengthen an already growing list of 1,100 autistic children who are still waiting to receive the therapy.

"It's obvious that the Liberal government is breaking its promises on autism," said NDP critic Andrea Horwath.

"It looks like the people holding the bag are these agencies - these not-for-profit agencies - that are going to be stuck having to decide and having to be the bearers of bad news that the government hasn't lived up to its promise."

Stacey Sayer, a 38-year-old nurse in northern Ontario, said she's waited two years for her 9-year-old autistic daughter Maggie to receive IBI therapy and there's still no end in sight.

The closest place where Maggie can receive autism services is in Timmins, an hour-and-a-half drive from their home in King Kirkland, a small community east of Kirkland Lake. The family also makes frequent trips to North Bay, Toronto and Ottawa to meet medical appointments for Maggie, who also suffers from Down Syndrome among other disabilities and needs constant care.

There are IBI therapists in Kirkland Lake, but Maggie can't receive the therapy until she makes it to the top of the wait list, said Ms. Sayer. And Maggie can't move up the list until the therapy is provided to another autistic child in Kapuskasing, which doesn't have workers to provide the therapy, she said.

"We're very worried, yes, that time is ticking away and we're not getting what we need, and she's not getting what she needs," Ms. Sayer said.

"We're worried about her whole future and what's going to happen to her in the end."

Reproduced from http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20080720.wautismfunding0720/BNStory/National/home?cid=al_gam_mostemail

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