British Columbia

Advocates left with more questions than answers following change in support for children with diverse needs

Agencies that work with children who have diverse needs are left wondering how this new announcement will affect their operations and clients moving forward.

Budget, criteria for qualification, and how children will transition to the new program remain unclear

Advocates for children with unique needs say the B.C. government announcement of a new program left out important details, including budget and the process for transitioning to the new services. (CBC)

The province's announcement of a brand new system of support and funding for children with diverse needs earlier this week left many advocates and parents with more questions than answers about what the future holds for their children and support workers. 

Mitzi Dean, minister of children and family development, announced that moving forward, children will not require an official diagnosis to get the help they need. 

Additionally the ministry says children will be able to access support sooner, including expert intervention and therapies at "one-stop family connections hubs."

Bonnie McBride of Kamloops, B.C., has four children, all with varying needs: one has been diagnosed with autism, one with cerebral palsy and two with unique needs, who haven't been formally diagnosed. 

She's pleased the new program means service providers can offer government-funded resources to anyone who qualifies, not just children with autism specifically. 

"I have a child with cerebral palsy who has been on a waitlist here in Kamloops for occupational therapy and speech therapy for over a year in the same facility," she said. 

"There was a room for him in the program for autistic children if he'd only had that diagnosis. This will change that."

However, representatives from both the Autism Support Network Society (ASNS) and Pacific Autism Family Network Foundation (PAFNF) are puzzled by the announcement. 

Questions like how much funding will be added to support additional children, how it will be divided, how it will affect the way service providers operate, and whether more care providers will be trained are all running through the minds of those working to support these children and their families.

"A lot of people are left in the lurch in terms of the information," said Kyle Nguyen, director of operations and I.T. for PAFNF. 

He said the government needs to lay out what the journey will look like for families as they navigate this new system — from filling out application forms to accessing support.

Nancy Walton, executive director for ASNS, is disappointed her organization was left out of discussions about this transition. 

Now, she wonders who is going to decide what a child's needs are. 

"These are the people that work for the ministry don't actually understand," Walton said. "They don't have the training, they don't specialize in autism to understand what our children are going to need."

She said the hub system is similar to the one used in Ontario, a system that forced parent Cassandra Lopez to relocate to B.C., to get support for her child.

"We were refused behaviour intervention within the Ontario hub system because the case manager decided our child was not ready for it," she said in a statement. 

Four years after arriving in B.C., where she received support, she got a call from Ontario saying her child was on the waitlist for behaviour intervention.

"We feel that all [the Ministry] is going to do is take a current waitlist for assessment and turn it into a waitlist of services," Walton said.

What all of this means for diagnosed children who are already accessing government funding for support services remains unclear.

Dean said nothing will change immediately, but the province will support children and families as they transition to the hub system. 

"Children and youth, whatever their needs are, they will have their needs met," Dean said. 

Additionally, the cost of the transition is unknown.

Dean was asked by reporters multiple times how the budgeting works for this new program and couldn't give any details; she said there will be more information when the 2022 budget is released, adding that $13 million was added to the budget for children with unique needs in 2021. 

The province said in a statement the new system will provide help to around 8,300 more children — a 28 per cent increase compared to the current system.

CBC requested more details on funding, how the program will affect children who are already receiving funding and what types of needs will qualify for the new program, among other things. The ministry did not respond before deadline.