British Columbia

Children and youth with special needs suffering greatly in the pandemic, representative says

B.C.'s children's representative says support and services for children and youth with special needs have evaporated, leaving families "hanging on by a thread."

Supports and programs have evaporated since COVID-19 hit, leaving families desperate

Jennifer Charlesworth, British Columbia’s representative for children and youth, says families of youth and children with special needs are under incredible stress during the COVID-19 crisis. (Office of the Representative for Children and Youth)

The pandemic is taking a brutal toll on children and youth with special needs and their families, according to a new report by B.C.'s representative for children and youth.

"Families are just hanging on by a thread, they are absolutely spent," said Jennifer Charlesworth. "Can you imagine providing 24 hour care to children … who have lost all supports?"

The report, Left Out: Children and Youth with Special Needs in the Pandemic, calls for urgent government action and collaboration with families and community organizations to address a segment of the population that has been neglected during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The report includes a survey of over 500 families that paints a picture of the crisis many are facing.

The closure of community services and suspension of in-class learning has hit these families the hardest, leaving them without vital services for children with complex medical, physical, behavioural and cognitive needs.

Making matters worse, respite arrangements and community programs have also been cancelled or suspended because of the need for physical distancing.

Meanwhile, wait-times for assessments and diagnoses have grown longer.

Charlesworth said she is concerned that some families, pushed to their breaking point, will be left with no alternative other than to put their child or teen into foster care.

"That would be a tragedy," she said. 

The executive director of Inclusion B.C. said the pandemic has amplified frailties and fractures in the system that existed before COVID-19 hit.

"The pandemic has revealed a system that fails children with disabilities," said Karla Verschoor.  "It's simply unjust and inexcusable to leave their families alone and unsupported, which is what we've done for far too long."

The report makes the following recommendations:

  • More and better communication between the Ministry of Children and Family Development and families, community providers, family networks and advocates.
  • A one-year extension to fall 2021 of all pandemic-related benefits and processes for families with children and youth with special needs. 
  • Creation of a special working table bringing together families, community organizations, advocates and funding ministries for regular check-ins and problem solving.
  • Funding support for community organizations to help families find alternative services.
  • A review of virtual service provisions delivered in the first months of the pandemic.
  • Streamlined processes for emergency benefits and approvals that minimize the paperwork and administrative burden for families.
  • Exploration of the concept of support "bubbles" for in-home services to reduce the risk of exposure to COVID-19 for both family members and service providers.



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