Ontario’s new Minister of Community and Social Services says he is committed to making public the number of children waiting for autism therapy services. The approach, however, does not address concerns in an internal report that the government knowingly inflated the size of the waitlist.
Addressing the autism file for the first time on Wednesday since taking over the portfolio about two weeks ago, Todd Smith told reporters in Ottawa that his move to make the waitlist public comes as the Progressive Conservative government looks to build trust with families of children with autism.
Mr. Smith has been silent on the issue over the past few days as a review done by one of the government’s own members, obtained by The Globe and Mail through an anonymous source, found that repeated assertions by Queen’s Park that 23,000 children were on a list waiting for services was “unverified and is likely inaccurate.”
Premier Doug Ford told a Toronto radio station earlier this week that the government needs to determine the real number of children waiting for autism therapy supports.
The 23,000 figure is significant because it was used by the government to justify its changes to the autism program, which would have abruptly cut funding for thousands of children with complex needs who were receiving government-funded therapy.
Mr. Smith told reporters that 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.
“To build trust between the ministry and the public, we need to be open and transparent. Families and the public deserve to know how we are working to provide care. This is one of my top priorities.”
Mr. Smith said the most recent numbers available showed 24,924 children were waiting for supports, and another 10,365 were receiving therapy.
Autism advocates are skeptical of those figures. A review done by Toronto-area PC MPP Roman Baber said that the government’s waitlist doesn’t take into account families who have registered their children with more than one service provider or who could be back on the waitlist after receiving a block of therapy.
In his report, Mr. Baber said the government’s messaging about the waiting list and spending on the autism program was “inaccurate.”
“I am prepared to elaborate upon request,” he stated in the report.
“There is no one wait list – that is a fiction," he wrote.
Laura Kirby-McIntosh, president of the Ontario Autism Coalition, said that at the very least, making public the number of children waiting for therapy is an effort by the government to be more transparent.
“This government has a lot of work to do to rebuild trust with the autism community,” she said on Wednesday. “This is a good first step.”
NDP MPP Monique Taylor said in a statement on Wednesday that the Ford government has failed families. “Families need not only apologies, not only monthly updates on the waitlist, but they need immediate action – a fully funded Ontario autism program that provides support and services based on need,” she said.
Many parents with autistic children held rallies and packed the public galleries at Queen’s Park after the government announced changes to the autism program in February. Facing backlash, the government backed away from some of the changes a month later. It promised to study how the program could provide additional support for families based on needs and doubled the funding available to all families to $600-million a year.
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