Liberal MPP calling for Lisa MacLeod to step down over allegations of autism waitlist freeze

Liberal MPP Michael Coteau is urging Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod to step down in the wake of allegations that her Ministry directed autism service providers to stop servicing new families off of Ontario's waitlist.

Emails appear to show Ministry directive to stop servicing families on the waitlist

Minister for Children, Community and Social Services Lisa MacLeod is being told to resign by a Liberal MPP after allegations that she intentionally froze the autism waitlist.

Liberal MPP Michael Coteau is calling on Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod to resign after leaked emails appear to show her ministry directed autism service providers to stop helping Ontario families on the waitlist last fall.

Emails forwarded to CBC Toronto and other media outlets appear to show internal communications in late 2018 from at least two regional autism programs directing staff to not provide services to any more families.

"The allegations that Lisa MacLeod deliberately and callously closed the autism wait list to manufacture a crisis and justify her flawed plan are shocking and shameful," Coteau wrote in a statement on Sunday.

MacLeod and the Progressive Conservative government have been facing fierce criticism for weeks over their changes to Ontario's autism program, which aim to eliminate the waitlist for treatment by sending funding directly to families rather than regional service providers.

MacLeod has defended the changes, arguing more children will receive support. But many parents say the program doesn't differentiate between children who have a mild form of autism and those who require intensive therapy. 

Parents have also voiced frustration with a lack of communication from the government.

Emails direct service providers to stay quiet about changes 

One email, dated in September and apparently sent from Kerry's Place Autism Services in Brampton, comes with the subject line "Pausing OAP services."

"We have been asked to make a pause on making calls to families regarding DSO [direct service option] or DFO [direct funding option] services... until further notice," it reads. 

Another email, dated December and also apparently from Kerry's Place, is a reminder not to share any information about the status of the waitlist.

"The general public and other agencies outside of the OAP Behavioural Services providers are not aware of the "hold" that we currently have on Behavioural Services until March 31," it reads.

"Please do not share this information with others."

Other leaked documents appear to show government messaging for service providers who have to answer questions from anxious families about their status on the waitlist. 

Ministry's response

In a statement Monday morning, the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services said that in Oct. 2018, agencies received a directive which told them to give services only to families "to whom previous service commitments have been made." 

It also denied that MacLeod had ordered a freeze, writing that children "have continuously been registered in the Ontario Autism Program and received service as space and funding permitted." 

The statement blames the previous Liberal government's Jan. 2018 changes to the OAP for creating "significant funding pressures on the program budget."

Following this weekend's allegations and Coteau's statement, MacLeod also defended herself on Twitter.

"Conspiracy theories abound," she wrote on Sunday evening. "Truth is Kathleen Wynne and Michael Coteau left us a bankrupt mess that denied more children than it would ever help. This plan is fair, equitable and sustainable."

She also retweeted Cal MacLennan, her spokesperson, who wrote that "there was no money on the kids on the waitlist to get service."

'We knew', says parent

The weekend's allegations have been a bitter pill for Ontario parents like Kally Flewitt of Whitby, Ont. 

She had been told by her service provider in Feb. 2018 that her son, who is now 10, would get to the top of the OAP waitlist and receive funding for therapy by the fall. 

In Oct. 2018, Flewitt followed up  and spoke to a manager.

"I asked her point blank, I said, 'there's news in the community, people saying that nobody's moving off this list.'" 

Flewitt said the manager told her that while things had slowed down, there was no hold. 

The leaked emails leave Flewitt feeling like she had been lied to.

"She knew I was on to them at that point in October," she said. "And just from talking to other families... we knew, something is happening, something's not moving." 

Program revamp came with promises to clear waitlist

The necessity of clearing the waitlist — which Macleod said has 23,000 children on it — has been a key component of the government's OAP revamp.

"There's nothing more cruel than having 23,000 children denied service from their government," she said in an interview earlier this month with Metro Morning.

Parents gathered in St. Thomas, Ont. this month to protest recent changes to the provincial autism program. (Provided)

Under the new OAP, which is set to begin on April 1, a family can receive a maximum of $140,000 in total funding, depending on the child's age and the family's household income.

The OAP revamp prompted province-wide protests from parents, some of whom called the new funding model a "pittance" for all.

MacLeod also faced calls to resign after a group of behaviour analysts said she threatened them with "four long years" if they didn't support the new program. She later apologized.