The committee, which includes Skeena MLA Ellis Ross, met for their first meeting at the Terrace Sportsplex on May 21 as part of their provincial tour to eight B.C. communities. (Legislative Assembly of British Columbia photo)

Committee visits Terrace to discuss services for students with special needs

Public invited to share how assessment, eligibility process can be improved

A select Standing Committee on Children and Youth met in Terrace on May 21 to discuss how to dismantle financial and eligibility barriers preventing children with special needs from accessing the services they need at school.

“Waitlists for accessing diagnostic assessments are too long,” says Ceara Hutchinson, a speech and language pathologist with Kitimat Community Development Centre. “Currently, our clients may be waiting anywhere from 18-24 months just to access an assessment from the Northern Health Assessment Network. This results in missed opportunities for accessing services that would greatly impact the functioning of our clients in their everyday lives.”

The committee, which includes Skeena MLA Ellis Ross, met for their first meeting at the Terrace Sportsplex as part of their provincial tour to eight B.C. communities.

READ MORE: School district briefs: Stewart protests possible budget cuts

The wait for an autism assessment is a large barrier in the Terrace community as well, with staff from the Terrace Child Development Centre saying clients could be looking at anywhere from 19 months to two years for an assessment.

“The level of support and intervention for individuals with neurodiverse special needs decreases significantly in our community after a child transitions into the public school system. There appears to be a total lack of resources, from there not being enough educational assistant support in our classrooms to huge caseload numbers for specialized services,” Hutchinson says.

Hutinchson says SD82 has one speech and language pathologist who is responsible to cover all 10 schools in Kitimat and Terrace, with a current caseload of 169 clients. Hutchinson has a waitlist of her own of 60 clients.

The Terrace Child Development Centre staff says while they don’t have a wait-list, their workloads are “quite high and overwhelming at times,” noting many children in Terrace, Thornhill and surrounding area do not access programs.

“Our schools need more funding to increase the access to these services,” Hutchinson says.

Currently, school districts receive dedicated funds for children with special needs, but often these funds go to general revenue in the school district, not to the child. According to Brittney Mailloux, a behavioural analyst with Kitimat CDC, there are only certain diagnoses that generate funds to hire educational assistants (EAs).

“If you have a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, that individual generates funds. If you have a diagnosis of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) you do not generate any funds,” she told the committee. “The school district is left with the principals’ determining how to take the funding they do have and spread it among the number of children who require support.”

Courtenay-Comox MLA Ronna-Rae Leonard says it isn’t a “pie in the sky to dream” funding wouldn’t be so dependent on a diagnosis.

“I think that’s one of the challenges that we face: how do we serve all of the needs of the kids as they come through?”

‘Too many waitlists’

Terrace trustee Margaret Warcup, who noted she was not speaking on behalf of the board but as a previous member of B.C.’s child care council, says she supports a review of the funding model used to allocate resources to students with special needs.

“It almost brings tears into your eyes in terms of some of the changes we need to have happen,” Warcup says.

Last year the province put forward a proposal to change the way services for students with special needs are funded, known as the prevalence model. It would allocate funding automatically for special education using a range of third-party medical and socio-economic population data instead of basing amounts on specific students.

Today, schools are funded based on full-time student enrolment, with extra funding for each student identified with special needs. Within the committee’s report, titled ‘Improving Equity and Accountability,’ members note the current funding model has ’not only led to service inequalities but also concerns about the predictability of annual funding for school districts.’

However, at the BC Teacher Federation 2019 annual general meeting, teachers from across the province voiced their opposition to the proposed prevalence model, arguing it would move funding away from the actual needs of students to an impersonal statistical model based on data rather than individual need.

Warcup says she welcomes new models of funding, but there needs to be more information available about the prevalence model to determine whether it would best suit the needs of students.

“I would support that we move to the functional evaluations and use and fund based on needs,” Warcup told the committee. “I know it’s expensive to fund it that way, but we need to move our system to funding based on needs so that every child receives services.

“I really do believe that if monies are put into functional needs assessments and then allow time for diagnosis to occur…. I’m not saying diagnosis is not important, but using a diagnosis to drive the funding of our system is causing too many problems. There are children missing services and having access to services that way. There are too many waitlists.”

READ MORE: Class sizes down, special needs up, BCTF says

Other barriers include the difficult transition for students with special needs from kindergarten to primary school, the lack of therapists in the North and the “desperate need” for educational assistants and early childhood educators, Warcup says.

Parents, educators and other community members interested in services for students with special needs are asked to provide feedback by June 7.

Contact the Parliamentary Committees Office at 250-356-2933 (toll-free in BC at 1-877-428-8337) to inquire. Make a written, audio or video submission through the committee’s consultation portal.

The MLA committee’s next stop will be on June 3 in Victoria, followed by a visit to Surrey on June 4. They previously visited Fort St. John, Prince George, Kelowna, Castlegar, and Nanaimo.

In Terrace, the legislative committee heard from representatives from the Kitimat Community Development Centre, Terrace Child Development Centre, Coast Mountains School District 82 Terrace trustee Margaret Warcup and a Terrace mother whose daughter was born with epilepsy and autism.

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