Thursday, October 30, 2008

Premier's autism centre plan drawing hard questions

Gordon Campbell seemed to catch everyone by surprise with the announcement of a $20-million contribution to a privately planned autism centre with a vague mandate.
And not everyone involved with the issues is pleased, based on this e-mail to the province's auditor general.

TO: Office of the Auditor General of BC
FROM: Dawn Steele & Cyndi Gerlach, Moms on the Move
RE: Request for review of Premier's/Minister's role in committing $20 million in public funds for a private proposal to build an autism centre
DATE: October 29, 2008

Dear Sirs,

We are both parents of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and coordinators of Moms on the Move, a volunteer provincial network that has provided information, advocacy and support to BC families of individuals with autism and other special needs for over eight years. We are the largest such network in BC, linking over 1,000 families and community members.

We are writing to request that you investigate the role of the Premier's office in allocating $20 million in provincial funding and/or other public resources/property to a private proponent seeking to build an "autism centre;" and further, to review whether the Minister responsible for autism policy in BC has failed to ensure that public resources intended to serve children with autism are being allocated in a manner consistent with provincial autism policy and good governance practices with regard to procurement, accountability and public interest.

We were invited, along with other autism community groups leaders, to a meeting hosted by the project proponents, Wendy and Sergio Cocchia, at their downtown hotel on July 24. At that meeting, they informed us:
a.. They are parents of a child with autism but have no expertise or experience in delivering autism services or supports
b.. They are personally acquainted with the Premier and have been asking him for several years to provide public funding and/or property to help them build a provincial autism centre
c.. The Premier gave Sergio Cocchia a "heads-up" in advance that the February 2008 budget would include funding for their centre.
d.. The Premier invited Cocchia to meet him in February following the budget, committed $20 million in Provincial funds towards constructing a new building to house their centre and asked him to develop and submit a formal proposal by the fall.
e.. The Premier said the $20 million would have to be paid out by March 31, 2009, or it would be lost to "general revenues."
f.. In response to questions, the proponent said he was unaware of any needs assessment, formal RFP, advertisement or competitive process.
g.. The proponents established a foundation and intend to fundraise to construct a $34-million building, possibly at the SFU Campus on Burnaby Mountain.
h.. The purpose of the centre was not determined. Facilities could include space to deliver therapy, research and training; a sports centre, swimming pool and baseball diamond where children with autism could enjoy recreation "safely;" a coffee shop or perhaps a training spa/salon; videoconferencing, plus accommodations for out-of town families who might visit.
i.. Government would provide no new funds for any of the proposed activities; families would have to pay from existing resources or fundraise to cover all costs.
j.. Participants were invited to help decide what to do with this new centre, as a formal proposal had to be submitted this fall.
No government officials were present on July 24 to comment further or confirm this. There has still been no formal government announcement regarding this proposal, availability of new public funds and/or government's objectives, intentions or project parameters. The 2008 Throne Speech contains a single sentence referencing plans for a provincial residential centre for autism education and reseach. No details were provided in the provincial budget. The Service Plan of the Ministry for Children and Families, which has responsibility for out-of-school supports and treatment for children with autism, has no reference to this plan. Neither does the Ministry of Education, which has responsibility for K-12 special education, and which abandoned earlier plans from the 2007 Throne Speech to create a provincial model school for autism suggested by the same proponents following strong commnuity opposition. All we have are several comments quoted in response to media questions: 1) The MCFD Minister confirmed a "notional commitment" was made and 2) The Minister for Housing and Welfare said the funding would come from his budget.

$20 million is equivalent to half the annual MCF budget for autism, which funds early intervention therapy for some 5,000 children. The Province has no equivalent program to fund therapy for other developmental disabilities, like Down Syndrome. At the July 24 meeting, community leaders welcomed the prospect of new provincial funding, given the urgent need to enhance and expand treatment, but questioned the appropriateness of spending it all on a building, especially when other under-utilized community facilities (like public schools) could provide any needed space. The centralized delivery model is also inconsistent with provincial policy and families' preference to access services locally, and would offer little to the vast majority of families beyond the immediate vicinity. Participants also questioned the appropriateness of the Premier's personally handling this project outside normal channels and accountability systems.

Community feedback
Participants at the July 24 meeting proposed that our group, as the largest autism network in BC, be used to seek further community feedback. We created an informal Web survey and distributed the link to over 1,000 community members (parents, professionals and service providers), including the proponents. When preliminary feedback indicated overwhelming opposition, we immediately advised the Premier and proponents of concerns being expressed (all cited correspondence copied below).

We continued to run the survey over 7 weeks in August and September and a total of 531 responses were received. A summary of the full results is attached. Individual responses and detailed comments can be browsed directly at:
Key findings:
a.. Parents overwhelmingly prefer local delivery of autism treatment - the worst gaps are in rural areas, not Greater Vancouver
b.. Addressing gaps in funded services and supports for all ages is far more important for families than a new building/ provincial centre, which ranked last in a list of priorities
c.. 95% agreed there were better ways to spend government funds to serve children with autism in BC
d.. A majority think funding for new services should be shared with other disabilities
e.. A majority also had process concerns: 80% think the Minister should handle such inititiaves through normal channels; 96% would prefer a competitive process for soliciting proposals.
Attempts to share concerns
We have tried several times to share the detailed survey results and comments and/or to further engage with the proponents. They have dismissed these concerns in media comments, declined or failed to respond to our approaches and have not shared further information or offered further engagement since the July 24 meeting.

Sources involved in this project insist that MCF Minister Tom Christensen was not party to the Premier's initial discussions or commitment, and was not even aware of the plans until this summer. They claim all decisions are still being made by the Premier, and that he remains 100% committed to funding a new provincial autism centre, despite the lack of any clear purpose, and whether or not that's what the community wants or needs. This week, we were told: "The train has left the station" - the project is going ahead, although the proponents still can't decide what the centre could offer that the community actually wants, and the Minister has no say in this.

However, since the Premier's response to our initial approach referred us to Minister Christensen, on Sept. 19, we asked the Minister to meet with us to discuss the survey feedback and the Province's plans. On Oct. 23, the Minister responded, declining to meet. He said he "understood" community discussions were underway and suggested we participate, although we had told him that we tried without success to meet with the proponents. Our provincial network has not been informed of any other public discussions underway.

Given events to date, we are not confident that further efforts to engage with the proponents or government will lead to meaningful consideration of community concerns reflected in our survey. The process to date also raises grave questions of competence in the leadership of this project to assure its success. Further, we believe it is the duty of the Ministry responsible, not a private group, to conduct any necessary discussions, set parameters and respond to concerns about the spending of public dollars.

Governance concerns
The Premier's commitment to spend $20 million in provincial funds on a privately-held building to house a provincial autism centre represents a significant investment of public funds and a significant departure from current policy and models of autism service delivery. This could instead fund services and supports for an additional 2,500 children with special needs who are being denied/waitlisted for vital early intervention services, pay for vital treatment that many families have to cover privately, or go towards urgently-needed research, training, assessment, special education or adult services. The need for the Province to invest in such a centre was further challenged by the recent announcement that a competing private group plans to open their own provincial autism centre in Burnaby in January 2009, without any public funding.

There has been no formal announcement regarding government's plans, objectives or intentions and no government effort to engage with the community to ensure that new funds for autism are spent effectively and in accordance with government policy. The Minister responsible and the proponents won't acknowledge or discuss concerns, the Minister responsible seems to be abdicating responsibility, it's unclear who's in charge, most families are still in the dark and we're being told that it doesn't matter what anybody thinks because the Premier wants this project to go ahead regardless. The latest third-party reports we have are that the former Sunny Hill hospital site is now also on offer, and that the purpose of the proposed centre still remains undetermined.

We ask that you specifically investigate/review the following questions:
1) Who is in charge? To what extent is the Premier managing this project directly, instead of allowing the Minister responsible for autism policy to manage his portfolio through normal channels, and to what extent has this muddied accountability, created concern and confusion and invited possible mis-spending of public dollars?

2) Has the Province failed to act transparently by not providing clear, timely and appropriate information to the public and affected communities regarding its intentions and objectives with an initiative that represents a significant policy shift and spending equal to half the current autism budget?

3) Does the Ministry responsible have an obligation to hold, supervise or at least participate in public consultations on major publicly-funded initiatives to ensure these are undertaken in good faith, in an open, accessible and objective manner, especially when there is evidence of significant community opposition?

4) Did the Premier act appropriately when he failed to undertake any needs assessment before committing public funds in response to a private request by an associate for support of a private initiative outside the current policy framework?

5) Was the Premier acting in accordance with provincial procurement policy and/or good governance practice when he committed $20 million without testing the offered proposal against existing provincial autism policy, without requiring credentials consistent with the proposed project, without any public discussion and without any open, competitive bidding process?

6) Minister Rich Coleman has stated in the media that this autism project will be funded from his budget for welfare and social housing - is this correct and if so, is it inappropriate? Is he therefore the Minister responsible if it's his budget?

7) Has the Province negotiated with the City of Vancouver or another party to provide lands at the former Sunny Hill hospital site to the proponents for their project and if so, on what terms?
The patterns described here are worryingly similar to those that surrounded the inception of Community Living BC, which is now widely seen as a disastrous undertaking that has consumed enormous public resources without improving the lives of those it was created to serve. MOMS repeatedly raised similar warnings during the CLBC restructuring process and urged government to reconsider, but with no success. I hope that we could avoid repeating this through proactive intervention from your office to ensure that the $20 million available is spent effectively in the public interest.

Please contact us if you have any questions (Tel 604 874-1416). We would be happy to meet with you to discuss this further, at your convenience.


Dawn Steele & Cyndi Gerlach
Moms on the Move


RossK said...

Good for Moms on the Move!

Somebody has to prevent the politicization of autism and watch out for ALL those kids' best interests.

(is it possible the Premier's PAO Army miscalculated badly when then they 'invited' Ms. Steele and Ms. Gerlach et al. to participate in the process thinking that they would be happy to help stitch together a nice, fluffy flack-hackery blanket?)

Anonymous said...

Campbell seems to believe that he has answers to most things. Does he listen to folks who do have the answers? Not often and not very well

Anonymous said...

I'm happy these folks have spoken out. Even happier that they have done all their homework.
The most troubling part of this story is that the gang who accused Premier Clark of wrongdoing over a sundeck appears to be blatantly misusing public funds and the rest of the media hasn't jumped on this.

Anonymous said...

As I read this heart-rending letter from Dawn Steele, I kept thinking back to last week when The Globe & Mail ran an editorial headlined: A premier who plans ahead ... cruel, bootlicking praise for Campbell prepared, I feel sure, by his army of Spin Doctors (whose salaries we pay, incidentally).

This $20 million throw-away on an unidentifiable building sure isn't "planning ahead" -- at least, not on behalf of kids and families.

The media isn't doing its job. This sad episode proves that Campbell doesn't care about people ... but the media continues to support and praise him at odd times. Unbelievable.

Thanks for publishing this, Paul.

BC Mary


Anonymous said...

Let's not get into the insulting name calling just yet. I have incredible respect for the intelligence of Ms. Steele and believe she is a fantastic advocate for children with special needs. However, all members of the autism comunity have been asked to contribute to this centre.
I agree CLBC has been a incredible waste of resources, this is what happens when the bureaucrats are in charge.
In my opinion Mr Campbell is listening and he is asking us to supply the vision.
We should get on board, be at the table and shape this project.
They could use your brain, Dawn, no one could keep a better tab on expenditures than you.

Anonymous said...

Sure it's great if all the existing programs and funding do not change...but I did not get that impression from the article. And the secrecy is not inspiring.

As the parent of a 3 year old recently diagnosed with autism disorder (who is now receiving therapy through provincial funding) - and one who does not live in the Lower Mainland - I know how important the local delivery of services is.

We couldn't do it if we had to fund the therapy and we certainly could not travel for it as both my wife and I work full time.

Our son goes for therapy in a former Elementary school and sometimes, when it works better for us, the interventionist comes to our home.

We are very thankful for this wonderful funding and service to help our little guy. I truly hope it does not get cut back due to one-half the annual budget being re-directed so one of Mr. Campbell's friends can undertake this questionable project.

If you choose to fund this building Mr Campbell please do not cut funding of local service delivery.