Ontario’s new minister responsible for the autism program is promising to rebuild trust with the community, acknowledging there was a “lack of communication” with families awaiting services.
Todd Smith, who recently took over as Minister of Children, Community and Social Services, said he stands by figures released by his ministry that show almost 25,000 children are waiting for supports. But, unlike his predecessor, Tourism, Culture and Sport Minister Lisa MacLeod, he is not committing to clearing the waiting list, a task he called “difficult.” Ms. MacLeod was demoted from the social-services ministry in a cabinet shuffle last month.
“I want to bring a real collaborative tone to this," Mr. Smith said of his new role.
“This is a very, very important file for the Premier [Doug Ford] and for our government. And he just wants us to build trust again with the families. I think for whatever reason, there had been a lack of communication.”
Mr. Smith’s comments, made in an interview with The Globe and Mail, address for the first time the findings of an internal review from a fellow Progressive Conservative MPP that said the government knowingly inflated the size of the waiting list to justify a funding model that would leave families “destitute.”
PC MPP Roman Baber’s report, obtained by The Globe last month through an anonymous source who would not provide their name, said that repeated assertions made by the government that 23,000 children were on a list waiting for services was “unverified and is likely inaccurate.”
Mr. Smith said that number is now closer to 25,000, due to an expanded list of therapies available to families. He said another 10,365 children are receiving therapy, according to recent figures.
While there could be a “handful of people” who are duplicated on the list, Mr. Smith said he is comfortable with the number, provided to the government by nine regional service providers.
“I have full confidence in the number and I think there needed to be some clarity around that number," he said. He said he is looking to provide monthly updates, verified by ministry officials, on the number of children waiting for therapy, as well as the number of children receiving services.
Mr. Smith said he welcomes input from all members, including Mr. Baber, but especially from the advisory panel announced by the government in May to make recommendations on a needs-based funding model. Both Mr. Ford and Education Minister Stephen Lecce met with the panel last week, Mr. Smith said.
“The idea behind this is to get funding to as many families of children with autism as possible. We’re taking advice from all corners,” he said.
Laura Kirby-McIntosh, president of the Ontario Autism Coalition and a member of the government’s advisory panel, said she welcomed the change in tone after the departure of Ms. MacLeod from the file.
“The recognition that we deserve to be spoken to respectfully is just a breath of fresh air," Ms. Kirby-McIntosh said.
Still, she said there are “a lot of questions we don’t know the answer to” regarding how the government’s list of children awaiting services is compiled, including how children are diagnosed, whether families are registered twice, or if a child has already received a block of therapy and is back on the waiting list.
NDP MPP Marit Stiles said Mr. Smith should immediately fund a needs-based autism program in order to regain the trust of the parents of children with the disorder.
“Once again you can put a new minister in place, you can change the face – this is a government that wouldn’t commit to coming clean on waiting-list numbers until they were found out,” Ms. Stiles said.
With a report from Jeff Gray
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