COVID-19 disproportionately affects children and youth with special needs: B.C. report

File photo of children at daycare. Global News file

The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified problems in the support systems for B.C. families of children and youth with special needs, a new report says.

The report, called Left Out, detailed gaps such as a lack of long-term income supports and chronic delays getting assessments that have persisted during the global crisis.

“There is an urgent need for (the Ministry of Children and Family Development) to undertake a comprehensive assessment of the actual demand for services across B.C., and the capacity of the current system to meet those needs,” Jennifer Charlesworth, the representative for children and youth, said Thursday.

“The revelations of the pandemic highlighted that urgency. I therefore strongly urge an immediate re-engagement of community partners on the design, development and implementation strategy for the new (children and youth with special needs) framework.”

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The province did have a program that made $225 monthly payments to families of children with complex needs to help pay for supports or services, but it only ran from April to June.

Both the provincial and federal governments have also created benefit projects to help these families directly and indirectly.

But the report outlined examples of difficulties accessing both new and long-standing programs, such as the approval process for use of funds and getting a regulated health professional to sign off on a piece of equipment.

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Families are calling for many of the processes to be streamlined and reimagined under the circumstances of a pandemic.

“There are so many things out of our control right now — out of everyone’s control,” said Brenda Lenahan, a representative for the group BC Parents of Complex Kids.

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“Children with complex disabilities and their families are shifting to adjust to the current realities, and we desperately need (the ministry) to do the same. Our kids can’t wait for new frameworks and better economic times.”

According to the report, other concerns include “in supports/services based on arbitrary lines that discriminate against children who do not fit into the restricted eligibility categories” and the “disproportionate” impact on families who are also Indigenous or Black, families of colour, newcomers and refugees, low-income or single-parent.

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Frontline workers are calling on the province to rapidly develop and roll out a plain-language communication strategy for the ministry, modelled on the family-engaged model used by Community Living BC during the initial months of the pandemic.

The report also recommended extending all pandemic-related benefits and processes for one year, and creating a roundtable for family networks, advocacy groups, community service providers and funding ministries to do regular check-ins and brainstorming on emerging needs, barriers to services and access to supports.

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Advocates are also hoping the province will declare families of children with special needs to be essential workers so that they can access services and work with community groups to develop activity plans for children during “pandemic lockdowns.”

“Common pandemic worries such as job loss, health concerns, reductions in community services, the closure of child-care centres and the suspension of in-class learning assume much more significance for families of children and youth with special needs,” the report said.

Newly appointed Minister of Children and Family Development Mitzi Dean acknowledged the system is fragmented.

“It has been fragmented for a long, long time,” she said.

Dean said she has instructed her staff to create a special advisory panel to hear directly from families and stakeholders on where gaps exist, and how to accelerate a new framework for service delivery.

“We are in a situation now where we have drafted a framework and I’ve said to staff we need to accelerate the implementation of this framework,” Dean said.

“And the framework will rebuild the system. And the system will be built around the needs of children and their families, their special support needs.”

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