Emails show autism agencies told by ministry to pause contact with families

Family with 2 children with autism react to long wait times for ABA therapy
WATCH ABOVE: Tata Shifrin has two young sons with Autism and one is currently on the wait list for funding that will help with ABA therapy. Erica Vella speaks with the mother about her frustrations after waiting more than two and half years.

Emails obtained and verified by Global News appear to show that Ontario’s Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services directed autism support service providers in the province to stop making calls to families of children with autism placed on its waiting list in September.

Story continues below advertisement
In an email dated Sept. 27, 2018, a manager with Kerry’s Place Autism Services, Canada’s largest service provider to families with children, adolescents and adults with autism, wrote: “As of this afternoon, we have been asked to pause on making calls to families regarding DSO [Direct Service Option] or DFO [Direct Funding Option] services in Central Region until further notice.”

READ MORE: Ontario’s autism funding overhaul — here’s how it compares to the rest of Canada

The email also directed staff with the agency to continue with scheduled appointments, “however, if you have been trying to connect with families and have not had a conversation around their DFO and DSO options as yet, please pause on making these calls.”

“We have been assured that this is very short-term, and as soon as we get more information from the ministry about how to proceed, we will share it,” the email read.

A subsequent email to staff in December reads: “Just a friendly note to let you know that the general public and other agencies outside of the OAP [Ontario Autism Program] behavioural services providers are not aware of the hold that we currently have on our behavioural services until March 31. Please do not share this information with others — this is internal-only information at this time.”
Story continues below advertisement

WATCH: Ontario parents of children with autism confront minister

Ontario parents of children with autism confront Minister
Ontario parents of children with autism confront Minister

A source with the agency, who did not want to be identified, told Global News in an interview: “I do not believe the government has been transparent throughout this process.”

The staff member is angry, believing the government deceived service providers.

“The emails show an intentional halt in service,” the source said. “The hold on services was initially communicated as short-term, but it has been anything but short. It now seems like an intentional hold to prevent families from receiving the supports they desperately need.”

The source went on to question the motivation behind the pause.

“The freeze could have been a ploy to increase the wait list numbers to make the situation for families to receive service appear more dire than it actually is,” the agency source added.

Story continues below advertisement

READ MORE: Kingston mother speaks out against Ontario government’s cuts to autism services

When asked about changes to the Ontario Autism Program, the agency source said: “The government only cares about its numbers instead of building equity into a system designed to promote equity for families who need it the most. Equality does not work here.”

The emails in question were first made public on Twitter over the weekend after being posted by Jaime Santana, a behavioural analyst who works at the Shining Through Centre, a service provider for children with autism. He told Global News that reaction to the post was swift.

“Most people were shocked, disappointed and overall, I think, offended,” Santana said. “Families especially. They felt disrespected by their government because they were kept in the dark.”

WATCH: MacLeod answers more questions about autism funding at Queen’s Park

MacLeod answers more questions about autism funding at Queen’s Park
MacLeod answers more questions about autism funding at Queen’s Park

Santana says Lisa MacLeod, minister of children, community and social services, needs to address the emails immediately.

Story continues below advertisement

“I think if she doesn’t want to be giving false hopes to parents, she should come clean and be honest with every family about the contents of those emails,” he said.

Santana says he’s spoken to multiple families over the past few days, whom he says have told him that they “were promised services in the fall or that they were at the top of the list in their region, only to be told in September they had to continue to wait with no explanation. Now we know it was because of the freeze.”

“But four months ago, [the families] had no idea. That is giving false hope. Being secretive about public services, that is false hope,” Santana added.

After a request from Global News, MacLeod released a statement late Sunday that reads, in part: “It is disturbing and disgraceful that there are suggestions of artificially inflating the wait list. Anyone playing politics with these families and continuing to push this false narrative should be ashamed. Our government inherited a broke and broken system that ignored 75 per cent of children with autism.”

Story continues below advertisement

READ MORE: Lisa MacLeod apologizes for pressuring group to support autism program

MacLeod did not answer specific questions about why the wait list was paused or why parents weren’t notified of the directive in the fall.

The minister also wrote: “Through the government’s recent changes to the OAP, families will receive childhood budgets so they can purchase the eligible services they value most from providers of their choice on a fee-for-service basis. Families will be able to do this each year without interruption until their child turns 18. This reform will help clear the current 23,000 children off of the wait list within the next 18 months and allow more children to access autism supports earlier. It will also speed up the diagnostic process so that families can make informed decisions quickly. This plan will be implemented on April 1.”

Liberal MPP Michael Coteau called on MacLeod to step down in light of the allegations.

In a statement, he said she cannot continue her duties with the “worsening series of allegations” against her.

“It is now clear that the minister has lost the confidence of the public, but more specifically, families with children with autism,” he said.

The NDP released a statement to Global News Sunday saying “We have been calling for MacLeod to step down, if she won’t, Ford should remove her. The NDP have sharply criticized how badly the Liberals let families and children with autism down, with thousands left to wait in an underfunded system. But given the chance to fix it, Ford and MacLeod chose to make it worse for those kids.”

Story continues below advertisement

Monique Taylor, the NDP’s critic for Children and Youth told Global News Sunday “We have been demanding Lisa MacLeod’s resignation for the threats and, most of all, for ripping therapies and hope away from children living with autism. If she won’t resign, Ford should remove her, because the buck for all this pain stops with him.”