Why did the Sask Party kill the Youth Companion Program?

PROVINCE by Gregory Beatty


Since 2008, parents of children with cognitive disabilities in Saskatoon have received provincial assistance to help arrange supplementary care for their kids. The Youth Companion Program lets the parents work outside the home after school and during summer holidays while also giving their kids companionship and a chance to enjoy various recreational activities.

Here’s how it works: the parents pay the attendant’s wage (between $13 and $15 an hour), and the Province helps out by providing funds, through Social Services, to the Radius Community Centre for Education and Employment Training. Radius vets potential caregivers and matches them with cognitively disabled youth between 12 and 22.

Since its institution, YCP has served more than 80 families (around 35 are involved right now).

Samantha Neill, a Saskatoon lawyer whose 19-year-old son Ethan is enrolled in the program, says she’d usually be meeting with Radius around this time to transition Ethan into getting comfortable with his summer caregiver.

“But we haven’t got that happening right now,” she says.

That’s because the Saskatchewan Party government, in its spring budget, axed the YCP’s $64,000 budget — killing the program.

Ethan has a genetic disorder called cri-du-chat syndrome, which impairs a child’s intellectual development and motor skills and causes behavioural problems. He needs help — and in past summers, Neill says, they’d have it.

“The worker would usually come in the morning, so they’re there when Ethan gets up to ensure that he gets ready for his day and has breakfast,” says Neill. “Then they go for outings like walks or bowling or to the swimming pool.

“It’s worked out well — and in circumstances where it hasn’t, the [program] coordinator has been able to locate an alternate caregiver. She’s also filled in the gaps by making herself or her summer student available. They do that with everyone in the program — they’re able to backfill if there’s a problem with the match, or if the companion is ill and unable to be with the family at the scheduled time,” she says.

Social Services minister Donna Harpauer defended the cut, saying parents could turn to other community-based organizations that provide services for disabled children.

NDP Social Services critic David Forbes takes issue with that.

“[Other CBOs] are working full tilt already to fulfill all their commitments, so for the government to say, ‘Well, can you do this off the side of your desk?’ isn’t good service at all,” says Forbes.

And despite an extensive search, Neill has yet to find another Saskatoon CBO to help her match Ethan with a compatible caregiver.

“Someone in the Minister’s office cited Big Brothers and Big Sisters. Well, that’s a mentorship program. When I phoned to check with them, they said they match up an adult with a youth to get together a couple of times a month for a couple of hours. There’s an age restriction too, as they age out at 18. So that’s far different from a program that provides caregiver alternatives for families with disabled youth,” Neill says.

Another program called CLASI (Community Living Association Saskatoon Inc.) provides respite care to families looking after foster children, says Neill.

But if you’re the biological parent of a disabled youth? You don’t qualify, she says.

Without Radius’ assistance, says Neill, she and the other families in the YCP will be forced to find caregivers for their children on their own — without the benefit of an expert doing background checks and vetting potential candidates.

“I’ve been in that situation where I’m looking for someone, and wind up hiring them through Kijiji, and hoping to god that your instincts are good and that the back-checking you’ve done is reliable,” says Neill.

“We think this is a really misplaced priority by the government,” says Forbes. “The program is efficient, and I understand the summer is a particularly difficult time for these families and their young adults. They’re going to be scrambling to get good caregivers.”

With summer looming, says Neill, the government literally couldn’t have picked a worse time to end the program.

“Lots of the kids go to schools out of their communities,” says Neill. “They don’t have friends, they don’t have a social circle, because it’s not really feasible when you have behavioural and communication issues. So a lot of the time they’re reliant on their schools for a social circle.”

Through the YCP program, she adds, Ethan and the other cognitively disabled youths get to hang out with experienced caregivers and enjoy social opportunities with their peers.

“It seems the government hasn’t done its homework here,” says Forbes. “It’s been pretty dismissive, saying ‘it’s just $64,000 so how much a problem could it be?’ Well, for a program that’s providing a really important service, it’s a huge problem.”

In response to NDP questioning in the legislature, says Forbes, Minister Harpauer promised to contact Neill to discuss her concerns. Thus far, though, nothing’s been arranged.

“I would welcome an opportunity to discuss the program with the Minister,” says Neill. “The part that’s frustrating for me is that I feel she doesn’t understand its importance. There’s so many benefits, and for the government to say they can’t justify $64,000 to help 35 to 40 youth and their families is disappointing.”

Due to plunging oil prices and a generally sluggish resource and commodity sector, austerity was a theme in the 2015-16 Saskatchewan budget. But only a minor one. Social Services, in fact, received a 3.2 per cent bump in its budget, to $1.2 billion.

“It just seems like the government was intent on making some cuts, and if we look at the Social Services budget, I’m sure they could have come up with $64,000 somewhere else to enable them to continue this program,” says Forbes.

Over the summer, he says, the Opposition will keep track of the issue.

“We’ll see how it goes. Hopefully, everyone remains safe, and people like Samantha’s son Ethan have a good summer.”