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Vancouver Island autism support providers blindsided by provincial funding changes

B.C. plans to cut individual funding for children with autism, switch to hub model by 2025
Carla Willock is clinical director of the Victoria Speech and Language Centre, which provides support for 200 children with autism. (Courtesy Carla Willock)

Several Vancouver Island autism support services say a recently announced provincial funding change will hurt both them and the families they serve.

At the end of October, the Ministry of Child and Family Development revealed its plans to cut individual funding for children with autism by 2025 and replace it with a hub model for children with all kinds of support needs instead.

It came as a shock to families and service providers who had no idea a change was coming. The ministry conducted a engagement process in 2019 with 1,500 people across B.C. – none of whom were in Greater Victoria – to assess disability support gaps, but never consulted with families or service providers about the hub model specifically.

Under the current funding model, families receive $22,000 a year for children with autism under age six and $6,000 a year for children between ages six and 18. In the 20 years the model has been in place, dozens of small, mostly woman-staffed businesses have emerged across B.C. to provide these children with a variety of different therapies and services.

READ ALSO: Families rally in Victoria against cuts to support funding for children with autism

Now, those businesses have no idea if they’ll exist in three years time. The ministry has told them they’ll have the option to bid for the hubs or may be able to serve as subcontractors, but many don’t have the means to run an entire hub and don’t want to sacrifice their carefully formed practices for a general government model.

“It just seems like they actually have no idea what they’re talking about or what they’re getting into,” said Carla Willock, clinical director of the Victoria Speech and Language Centre.

She purchased a commercial property before the announcement dropped with the intention of expanding her centre, but with 60 per cent of her revenue coming from the 200 children with autism she serves, Willock now has no idea how she’ll afford it.

Shantelle Soto, who supports more than 100 children with autism at Stepping Stones Therapy in Saanich, said her centre stands to lose 95 per cent of its revenue.

It’s about more than losing their businesses, though. Willock and Soto said they and their therapists have spent years forming bonds and building progress with their clients. Public funding, although not without faults, has allowed parents to choose where to take their children and what kinds of therapy and supports work best, Willock said. She fears a hub model will offer them far less variety.

“That scares us that big, huge corporations could come in and win these models and not really know how to serve this population,” she said.

READ ALSO: ‘No faith’: B.C. autism community says they can’t support funding changes without consultation

Another concern is the needs-based model the ministry has promised. Willock and Soto both fear this is code for less funding for low-support needs – ‘high-functioning’ children.

“My guess is half of the clients I currently work with won’t see any services because there won’t be funding for them,” Soto said.

Asked about this in an interview with Black Press Media, Minister of Child and Family Development Mitzi Dean simply said each child will receive the supports they need.

Among the main reasons for the new model is to ensure more children – 8,300, specifically – receive support, Dean said. Currently, the families of children without an autism diagnosis can’t apply for funding, and those with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder or Down syndrome, for example, don’t receive enough for their needs.

Providing support for all children is something Willock and Soto both wholeheartedly agree with, but neither is sure the hub model will actually accomplish that.

Both women are concerned the hubs will carry far higher overhead and result in less funding actually reaching the children, and Willock is unsure how the province intends to staff the hubs and accommodate 8,300 more children, when it has dozens of unfilled pediatric therapy positions already.

Dean declined to say whether the ministry will increase funding to meet that increase of 8,300 – 30 per cent – in children it intends to support, saying she can’t comment on future budgets. She voiced confidence in the ministry’s ability to staff the hubs.

Asked about letters written to her from 34 B.C. disability support organizations and the First Nations Leadership Council, all expressing dismay at the decision, Dean said the ministry will be consulting with stakeholders in the new year.

READ ALSO: B.C. minister under fire for changes to child special needs support

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About the Author: Jane Skrypnek

I'm a provincial reporter for Black Press Media after starting as a community reporter in Greater Victoria.
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