Kitchener-Waterloo

More layoffs at KidsAbility due to changes to Ontario's autism program, CEO says

KidsAbility says it will have to layoff half of its autism staff as of January 2020 and CEO Linda Kenny says it's directly because of funding changes by the provincial government to the Ontario Autism Program.

Changes to program has 'destabilized a system' meant to help children, KidsAbility CEO says

Families of children with autism and their supporters rallied outside a press conference by Premier Doug Ford at Challenger Motor Freight in Cambridge in March. (Peggy Lam/CBC)

KidsAbility says it will have to layoff half of its autism staff as of January 2020 due to changes to the Ontario autism program.

That will be between 20 and 25 people and that's on top of the nine people KidsAbility laid off earlier this year due to changes to the program. Staff and clients were informed of the decision on Thursday.

"Given our current fiscal reality, our board determined that we have no choice but to layoff professional, highly trained, regarded and passionate individuals," KidsAbility CEO Linda Kenny said in a release.

Government funding for autism programs was cut by 25 per cent in March and all direct government funding to KidsAbility stopped on April 1. 

KidsAbility used to offer autism services to families free of charge, but started charging for services after losing the government funding.

Children under the age of six can receive up to $20,000 per year, while those six and older can get $5,000 each year. There's a maximum amount of $140,000 per child. Families can use the money to choose where to go for services.

Kenny said KidsAbility believes the changes to funding has limited options for families when it comes to them finding the right support for their children.

"The changes to the Ontario Autism Program have destabilized a system that was built with the unique needs of children and families at the centre," Kenny said.

Kenny added the agency's goal is to "build a program that will be sustainable" and will allow them to hire back staff impacted by the layoffs.

Uncertainty for services providers

A group called the Waterloo Region Alliance Against the Autism Funding Changes issued a statement after the layoffs were announced, saying they were saddened by the news. The group said the changes to the program by the province means providers "are left unable to properly plan for the future."

The group added that the layoffs will also impact low-income families, and those who don't speak English as their first language and rely on service providers like KidsAbility to "navigate an often confusing bureaucracy and to receive autism services for their children."

"We continue to advocate for a needs-based provincial funding model for autism services, providing people with autism access to services that best serve the needs of each individual throughout their lives."

Kitchener Centre MPP Laura Mae Lindo said when she heard the news, she immediately thought of the parents and children impacted.

"The Kitchener residents that are getting in touch with us, they're filled with anxiety," she said, noting the government hasn't released any funding yet. "Many of these families don't even have their childhood budget."

Todd Smith became minister of children, community and social services in a cabinet shuffle last month, but Lindo says being new to the portfolio is no excuse for inaction or a lack of communication with families.

"We've all heard what the parents have said. We've all heard from the therapists and the experts. We've all been in the chamber when people have come and protested outside and inside. We've all been there," she said. 

"These families don't have time for us to wait."

Todd Smith became the province's minister of children, community and social services during a cabinet shuffle in June, replacing Lisa MacLeod. Linda Kenny of KidsAbility says she's not yet been able to meet with Smith to talk about how the changes to the Ontario Autism Program is impacting agencies like hers. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Province 'understands the challenges'

Kitchener South-Hespeler MPP Amy Fee, Smith's parlimentary assistant who focuses on autism and has two children on the spectrum, said her heart goes out to the people laid off and the families.

"Our plan has always been to bring more children into service. I continue to be in contact with KidsAbility, and will keep this dialogue open as they work through these challenging times," she said in an emailed statement.

"Both Minister Smith and I are working hard to ensure the voices of the autism community are heard as our advisory panel prepares their recommendations for a sustainable, needs-based program."

Christine Wood, Smith's press secretary, emailed a statement to CBC Kitchener-Waterloo saying the government "is committed to supporting Ontario families and children and youth with autism."

That includes forming a 20-member advisory panel to review feedback and prepare recommendations for "a sustainable, needs-based approach for the Ontario Autism Program."

The government said it is also investing $600 million annually to autism services.

"We understand the challenges that occur during a transition period can be unsettling, but our intended result is a system that provides more choice to families and parents," Wood wrote.

"However, we know these changes will also mean an increased demand for autism-related services as funding is increased and more children come into service. We expect service providers to become re-employed across the sector as a result of demand from families in the immediate future."

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