WATERLOO – Last week officials announced KidsAbility will be forced to layoff half its autism staff as a direct result of the provincial government’s changes to the Ontario Autism Program.
However, on July 29, the government announced it would examine a “new needs-based and sustainable autism program.”
“My message to families of children and youth with autism is, we have heard you, and we are taking action,” said Todd Smith, minister of children, community and social services, in a press release.
“Our government is committed to a needs-based program that provides children and youth with the supports they need to thrive.”
Yet the announcement is not enough for KidsAbility to change its plan to lay off 20 to 25 autism staff members, about half the workforce, in January. These layoffs are in addition nine staff reductions announced in March, when the budget was cut by 25 per cent.
KidsAbility CEO Linda Kenny said KidsAbility has yet to receive official communication from the government about updated program changes.
“Once we have that in writing with what their intent is with respect to organizations like KidsAbility, then we can determine at that point whether we need to take another look at our plan,” Kenny told the Advertiser.
“We have the same information you have, which is what we heard yesterday on the announcement.”
Reacting to the KidsAbility layoffs, OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas called the government’s previously-announced autism policy changes “disgraceful.”
“Doug Ford and his government are picking on children in this province,” stated Thomas in a press release.
“The man who claims to be ‘for the little guy’ has targeted the most vulnerable members of our society through cuts to child care, education, foster care and, in this case, autism services.”
Lack of communication aside, Kenny said she’s happy with the government’s announcement to re-evaluate a needs-based program.
“We’re optimistic that we will hear from government,” she said. “And that will give us a bit more direction and then we’ll be pleased to take another look at our plan at that point.
“And we’re pleased that they recognized that they needed to reset and go back to the drawing board on the plan itself.”
The government also announced on July 29 that families will be able to extend their Ontario Autism Program Behaviour Plans for another six months after its end date.
“We need to determine what the implications of that are for our plan,” Kenny said.
“We don’t, at the moment, have any more money.
“Our budget hasn’t changed until we hear something different from the government.”
The budget is set until March 31 and as of April 1, KidsAbility is scheduled to be completely de-funded.
“In light of yesterday’s announcement we don’t know whether or not that’s changed and until we get information to suggest that it has changed, there’s nothing we can change about our plan,” Kenny said.
The Guelph KidsAbility autism program serves Wellington County residents, but Kenny said she didn’t know the breakdown of how many staff would be laid off from the Guelph office specifically.
“Our layoffs will occur in accordance with our collective agreement … so … we won’t be able to specifically say, ‘here’s the impact on Guelph’ until the dust settles on everything,” Kenny explained. “We’re laying off half of our staff and that’s based on seniority.”
The remaining staff will be redistributed throughout offices in Fergus, Guelph, Cambridge, Kitchener and Waterloo to fill the need.
KidsAbility’s most recent plan features fee-for-services offerings and the government’s new “childhood budgets” will help families with the cost.
Children under the age of six will be eligible to receive $20,000 annually in direct funding while those six and over are eligible to receive $5,000 annually up to a lifetime maximum of $140,000.
Under the current model, organizations like KidsAbility are funded and the clients receive their services at no charge – it’s the government that is billed. Now families will be billed.
Kenny said she’s concerned for the families who are too overwhelmed to make independent decisions about services.
“Our fear is that those families will fail in this kind of system,” she said.
Come April 1, KidsAbility plans to charge families on an hourly basis or on a services basis.
“We expect that it will have ripple effects through the entire program,” Kenny said.
“We think that what is happening with the autism program has the potential to happen with other services.”
KidsAbility assists over 11,000 children and youths – and their families – with almost 1,500 on a waiting list for services.
The government’s 20-member autism advisory panel consists of children with autism, clinicians, autism self-advocates, service providers, former public servants and others.
The advisory panel will be looking at online surveys, telephone town halls, written submissions, evidence, science and data to come up with recommendations for a new, needs-based and sustainable Ontario Autism Program, according to a government press release.