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Rob Shaw: B.C. pushes ahead with what parents call ‘clawback of care’ for autistic children

Despite parent concerns, the province will move ahead with dramatic changes to autism services for kids
Mitzi Dean, B.C.'s children's minister, is pushing forward with pilot projects on new community hubs in the next few months, and then a full new autism and neurodiversity therapy model by 2025 | Province of BC/Flickr

B.C.’s children’s minister insists it’s full steam ahead for her government’s dramatic changes to autism services for kids, despite getting another earful from angry parents this week that the plan is half-baked and amounts to a clawback of care for the province’s most vulnerable children.

Mitzi Dean says while she appreciates hearing from worried families, the personal stories they shared with her in a meeting Monday have not deterred her from pushing forward with pilot projects on new community hubs in the next few months, and then a full new autism and neurodiversity therapy model by 2025.

“I appreciate them coming here, and I take their concerns very seriously,” Dean said Tuesday. “We’ll be learning from our consultation with parents and service providers and community agencies as we make those transitions.”

But parents say the only thing the government is learning is new ways to brush them off.

At the meeting, they say they were challenged by Dean for their public advocacy campaigns.

“She’s on this kick right now saying, ‘I’m hearing a lot of misinformation from your stories,’” said Elena Lawson, co-founder of BC Autism Advocacy, who was part of a small group to meet the minister at the legislature.

The changes have led to heightened anxiety amongst parents that their autistic children could get fewer hours for things like speech and behavioural therapy, with less-trusted providers, after they’re forced to move from individualized therapy of up to $22,000 a year to new community group hubs.

While the Opposition BC Liberals have pushed the issue for several months in the legislature, Dean has largely dug in her heels.

“She doesn’t understand the complexity and impact of this new system on [parents’] lives and their children,” said BC Liberal critic Karin Kirkpatrick.

The result has been several months of messy political blowback for the government.

Parents have protested at Dean’s office, held rallies on the front lawn of the legislature and grilled ministry officials during public consultation sessions.

They say one of their core requests for government remains simple: Reassurance that their children will get the same hours of care, with the same service providers, once the government switches to the new hub model.

But the BC NDP government can’t, or won’t, make that promise.

Part of the reason is that government wants to clear a wait list of more than 6,000 children waiting for neurodiversity assessments, plus boost services for children with Down Syndrome and Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder – all without budgeting any new money to pay for it.

That’s raised suspicions the NDP’s ultimate goal here is to spread out B.C.’s existing autism funding to a much wider group of neurodiverse kids, effectively clawing back hours and services from some families to pay for others.

Parents say they don’t oppose clearing the wait list, or expanding services to other kids, but that government should fund the changes and not take money away from their children.

“They deserve it, of course, but why are you eliminating something that works for these families in order to provide for these other people?” said Lawson. “The writing is on the wall, there’s not enough money.”

Autism advocacy groups now have their sights set on David Eby, the front-runner in the BC NDP leadership race and the man likely to replace John Horgan as premier later this year. Will he reverse course, perhaps deciding the mess was the making of Horgan and Dean and not worth the fight under his new administration?

It’s a distinct possibility – though, if Dean is feeling any pressure for the future of her marquee reforms, and even her cabinet job, she’s not showing it publicly.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 14 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

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