Premier funds her friends’ 20$ M centre, while families, kids denied autism services

The provincial government today announced a $20 million government grant to help cover construction costs for a proposed private facilty in East Vancouver that will house autism service providers.

Today’s announcement confirms a personal commitment that former Premier Gordon Campbell made in a private meeting with hotelier Sergia Cocchia shortly before the February 2008 Throne Speech, following private lobbying by the Cocchia/Lisogar family, who have a child with autism and who are staunch political backers/donors to the Premier and her BC Liberal party. The Cocchias invited Christy Clark adviser Pamela Martin and wealthy BC Liberal political donors such as the Aquilini family to establish the Pacific Autism Family Centre (PAFC) Foundation to advance their project following Campbell’s 2008 commitment. Provincially-funded autism service agencies were recruited to help rally support for the proposed centre, with promises of new offices, elaborate facilities and expanded influence in overseeing provincial autism services.

The provincial government has never publicly consulted families on the proposed centre, undertaken any needs assessment or requested competing bids or proposals for the $20 million grant. The Province has already provided several million dollars to finance PAFC’s project development costs and to help the foundation conduct its own provincial “consultations” in an effort to rally community support — at a time when provincial funding for autism services has been cut and urgent autism support needs continue to outstrip budgets.

When the proposal was first announced in 2008, MOMS undertook a Web survey that showed most families would rather see new Provincial dollars go to boosting services, not constructing a new building. PAFC and Provincial authorities declined to respond.

In 2011, MOMS and other organizations, including the BC Association for Child Development and Rehabilitation and the BC Association for Community Living, challenged the proposed investment, citing the Province’s failure to understake any needs assessment.

Critics also questioned investing scarce Provincial dollars in a Vancouver building that would be inaccessible for most families struggling to support individuals with autism in rural BC communities, where access to appropriate supports is often most difficult. Best practices in autism intervention also emphasize the delivery of services right in the individual’s home, school or community wherever possible.

MOMS received threatening letters from provincial officials after leaking internal ministry documents citing advice from senior bureaucrats, who warned that PAFC’s proposed business model would further erode operating resources for critical Provincial programs such as autism diagnosis and assessment.

The $20 million grant will not go towards any actual services or supports for individuals with autism or their families. The entire amount will go to construction costs.

Premier Christy Clark’s “families first” policy seems to mean “buildings first” or “friends first.” Why else would she invest in a building proposed by her political friends when her government continues to deny or reduce program funding for services and supports to children, youth and adults with autism and their families around the Province, including:

  • Infants and children denied autism assessment and diagnostic services, with lengthy waitlists due to rationed BC Health ministry funding.
  • Preschoolers with autism denied intensive early intervention, after the Ministry for Children & Families eliminated intensive early intervention (EIBI) programs in 2008.
  • Chilren and youth with autism shut out of community daycare and afterschool programs due to rationed Provincial funding for specialized supports, without which daycare operators won’t accept children with special needs.
  • BC students with autism denied access to public school and/or special education supports critical to academic progress, due to a decade-long erosion of provincial Education funding for special education.
  • BC youths with autism denied post-secondary education and training opportunities, career planning and employment supports due to inadequate Provincial program funding and supports.
  • Adults with autism denied residential and living supports due to the ongoing CLBC funding crisis.
  • Many youths and adults with autism being denied adult supports due to IQ eligibility criteria that ignore key functional challenges for people with autism.
  • Families supporting high-needs individuals with autism denied critical respite and family supports, as CLBC and MCFD budgets continue to lag the rapidly-growing incidence rates of autism.

MOMS has repeatedly urged Premier Clark’s government to invest in critical front-line services and support programs, not a bricks & mortar project that will do nothing to mitigate the severely-strained support structure that’s causing so many individual and family crises in BC.

Today’s announcement is a profound waste of scarce tax dollars and a shameful betrayal at a time when Premier Christy Clark and her government continue to turn their backs on BC families and individuals with who are struggling to cope with the challenges of autism.

Dawn & Cyndi, MOMS

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