P.E.I. to hire private psychologists to assess students as wait list swells

P.E.I. Public Schools Branch will redirect funding that was meant for salaries for school psychologists to pay for private psychological assessments for children who've been waiting years to be diagnosed with a learning disability.

$200k budget created for private psychologists to diagnose learning disabilities in Island students

The P.E.I. Department of Education says $200,000 in funding for psychologist positions that can't be filled will now be used to pay private psychologists to conduct assessments of Island students waiting to be diagnosed with a learning disability. (Shutterstock)

The P.E.I. government says it's come up with a budget of $200,000 to pay for private psychologists to diagnose learning disabilities among Island students.

An agreement was reached this week between the Department of Education and the Public Schools Branch to apply unspent funds that were budgeted to pay for staff psychologists within the school system. The province has been unable to fill some of those positions. The funding is meant to cover to the end of the current fiscal year — March 31, 2018.

That money will be used to hire private psychologists take on some of the students waiting to be seen by a school psychologist. The cost per assessment has been estimated at about $2,400 per student, which some parents end up paying out-of-pocket rather than wait for their children to be tested.

List continues to grow

The province has been operating for years without its full complement of school psychologists, while the waiting list of children needing to be diagnosed with a learning disability has continued to grow.

Each year you lose, those are years these kids are falling further behind.- Bob Boyle

There are now 435 children on the list, according to government, and the current waiting period is 3.25 years.

But a number of Island families say they've been waiting much longer than that.

Bob Boyle said one of his children has been on the waiting list for six years.

Bob Boyle says one of his children has waited 6 years so far for a psychological assessment to diagnose a potential learning disability. (Denis Calnan/CBC)

Twice in that time, Boyle said he's tried to hire a private psychologist to do the work at the family's expense, but so far they've been unable to deliver the diagnosis he hopes could be used to provide the classroom supports his child needs.

"Each year you lose, those are years these kids are falling further behind," he said. "Not saying they're not going to reach their full potential at some point, it's just a much harder hill to climb."

Assessing children early in their school career "needs to be made a priority" with government, he said.

Students waiting long periods to be diagnosed with a learning disability on P.E.I. is an issue that goes back years.

Received call after graduation

Daniel Cousins is 27 years old, and graduated in 2008. He said he was put on the waiting list in Grade 5. By the time he reached Grade 10, his family paid for a private assessment.

But his name stayed on the waiting list and he finally received a call — after he had graduated.

Daniel Cousins says he waited 5 years on the list for a psychological assessment before his family paid for one privately. But he says his name stayed on the list, and he was called for his assessment after he graduated from Grade 12. (CBC News)

In his case, the diagnosis from his private assessment showed he has a form of low-spectrum autism, along with a learning disability which makes it difficult for him to write by hand.

"If there is a problem, [the assessment] should be done within that year," he said. "There should not be this long waiting list, this huge financial expense for parents, because many of them can't afford it.

"And that's their child's future, that's their potential."

The province says out of 8.4 full-time equivalent positions for school psychologists, only 6.6 are currently filled, with another psychologist away on leave this year.

"The issue is more about the small number of training programs and psychologists than it is about money," a spokesperson for the Department of Education told CBC News in an email.

'No-brainer,' says Opposition

According to the email, the departments of education and health began working a month ago "on a joint psychologist recruitment plan which may include initiatives such as intensive recruitment efforts, new or expanded training programs, and incentives such as signing bonuses or return-in-service agreements."

There was no information as to whether the $200,000 for private assessments was a one-time cash infusion, or whether more funding would continue into the next fiscal year.

PC MLA Sidney MacEwen says funding to hire private psychologists to diagnose learning disabilities in Island students is 'good news,' but questions why government didn't act sooner. (Alastair MacCormack/CBC News)

The Progressive Conservative Opposition on P.E.I. has been asking government to pay for private assessments to reduce the waiting list. In response, last December former education minister Doug Currie told the legislature wait times were "completely unacceptable," and that government was exploring using private psychologists to reduce the backlog.

But there was no funding in government's spring budget.

Opposition MLA Sidney MacEwen said it's a "no-brainer" to take money that was supposed to pay for psychologists the province is struggling to recruit and hire private psychologists to shorten the wait list, and wonders why it didn't happen sooner.

"It's disappointing that this is a knee-jerk reaction," he said. "Here we are a year later calling for it, and then within a week government makes a snap decision to say, 'Oh, let's throw $200,000 at it.' That doesn't tell me that anybody's been trying to plan long-term for this."


Kerry Campbell

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Kerry Campbell is the provincial affairs reporter for CBC P.E.I., covering politics and the provincial legislature.