IT was an announcement met with cautious optimism by members of a community that has been fighting for change.
On Jan. 19, Premier Christy Clark and Minister of Social Development Stephanie Cadieux appeared together at a press conference to announce a $40-million increase in funding to the beleaguered service organization Community Living British Columbia. The money is intended to support a new 12-point plan by the province to address serious concerns with CLBC voiced over the past year by families and advocates of adults with developmental disabilities.
Faith Bodnar is executive director of British Columbia Association for Community Living, an advocacy group for people with developmental disabilities. She said the government's new plan and accompanying fund increase lay the groundwork for significant change.
"There's reasons for many of us to be cynical, but I think right now we're called to move forward with some optimism and some trust in one another," said Bodnar. "I think it's a very significant series of first steps. And I think those two reports, they're significant documents."
The government plan was designed in response to reports released last week by two groups directed in September 2011 by Victoria to review CLBC's operations, management and budget: a Deputy Ministers' Working Group and a Ministry of Finance internal audit team. Both outlined their findings in the reports released last week.
They indicate a need for some system change, including developing consistency and clarity of assessments across ministries involved with providing services, and improving transition planning and services for youth turning 19. The age of 19 is when children with developmental disabilities move from children's services provided by the Ministry of Children and Family Development, to adult services by CLBC and other agencies.
"I think it's a significant step forward for families," said CLBC's interim CEO Doug Woollard, in an interview with the News. "There's a substantial amount of new dollars that have been provided, and this should make a real difference for the families who are waiting for services, or for people who are already receiving services, and who are requesting a change."
The budget audit report made some positive comments about how CLBC manages its money, stating taxpayer funds are "generally managed appropriately by CLBC." But the report also includes criticism of some processes, including conflict of interest oversight. In September, a performance bonus program was also terminated.
It's a mixed bag of good and bad for CLBC, but Woollard, who replaced former CEO Rick Mowles - reportedly fired in October amid the controversies - is optimistic change will benefit both CLBC and its clients.
"The focus over the last couple of years has been on fiscal efficiency and finding savings so that we could serve additional people. And I think we moved off of the original vision in order to accomplish that, and now we're trying to bring that back into balance," he said. "It is really important for CLBC to regain the public's trust, as well as the trust of the people we serve. For us, what that means is better communication, being more open and transparent, and doing what we say we're going to do."
The North Shore Disability Resource Centre provides services to people with disabilities, and is one of the service providers that works with CLBC. Liz Barnett, executive director of contract services at the centre, said she is not surprised by the outcome of the two audits.
"I'm not surprised at all. I mean it would be difficult to colour it in any other way," she said. "I am looking forward to seeing some change. (I'm) not entirely positive it will occur. I think that there's some work to be done, but it's co-operative work at least. It doesn't feel like it's just us banging away at the door."
Barnett said many of CLBC's problems stem from a focus on the bottom line rather than looking at how people can best be served.
One of the key concerns outlined in the reports involves CLBC's request-for-services list. The oft-cited list was generally considered by many as a waiting list, or record of clients waiting for service. Many also thought it was a key budget tool used by CLBC to identify needs.
The reports stated that the list contained many inaccuracies, including out-of-date client information, un-validated service requests, and requests that were not identified as short-term or long-term needs. It concluded the current state of the list makes it impossible for CLBC to identify the unmet demand for its services or estimate funding required.
Barnett suggests CLBC may not have put enough money into administration. "So if you don't do that, you have computers that are old, you have programs that are old, you have systems that have been cobbled together," she said, adding, "How much money was spent thinking about what kind of client's files would be kept? I'm certainly not defending the government and its administration, but I do know that you need to be able to have a handle on that. I don't know why CLBC didn't have a handle on that. They should have. We're compelled, we have a handle on it, why would they not?"
But Woollard explained the list was not originally created to be a waiting list. It was created as a central record, an internal tool to assist staff in keeping track of what people had asked for, and ensuring client requests weren't missed. It was not used as a budget tool to forecast future needs.
"We do our forecasting based on the number of new people who are eligible for services; we look at the number of people who are transferring from the Ministry of Children and Family Development, so that the actual budget forecasting that CLBC does wasn't based on the request-for-service list," said Woollard.
But he does recognize a need to improve the list. "There are a series of recommendations in the audit service report that suggest the direction that we should go in in terms of collecting information that would then be able to be made available to the public," he said. "Clearly the public wants to know how many people are waiting for services. We've received recommendations that we will be working with government to implement."
CLBC was formed seven years ago, and is part of the legacy of a movement of families and other community members who pushed the government to move away from institutionalization of people with developmental disabilities. As a result of that grassroots movement, the province's focus shifted from the use of large institutions to more inclusion in the community for people with developmental disabilities. It now provides various levels of support to its clients through CLBC and other ministry programs. CLBC now stands as a separate entity from its parent ministry.
That's something Bodnar doesn't want to see change, despite CLBC's current problems.
"I'm committed, and I know our organization is committed, to CLBC as a separate entity," she said, adding the last thing she wants to see is CLBC being absorbed back into a very large, complex ministry. "I think the fact that it's separated out on its own allows it to be more responsive and creative and innovative."
While there is still work to be done, including the creation of an inter-ministry team to discuss and plan CLBC's path forward, Woollard points out change is already happening.
In September, CLBC set up a client support team to work with families who felt their service requests were not being met. To date, about 180 people have accessed the support line, and Woollard reports 60 per cent have had their concerns resolved. He says that line will remain active until a formal appeal mechanism, recommended by the audits, is in place.
Of the other recommended changes, some are already being implemented, and some are on the way. Woollard refers to the client support team as an example of immediate change, as well as an $8.9-million boost allocated to CLBC in September, which is currently being used to service clients across the province.
"The larger parts, which are more about system change, youth transition, looking at how government organizations assess need and make common decisions, those things will take a little bit longer. But we are immediately responding to people's needs right now," said Woollard.
Bodnar gives credit to the premier for infusing CLBC with more funds, but warns it will take more than money to fully meet families' needs.
"What you don't want to do is put money onto a situation and think you'll solve it all. Money is important here because we've got a serious gap in people waiting for service and cuts to services, but I think we also want to work together on how do we resolve this so we're not here again in a year or two years," she said.
Bodnar said stories in the media over the past year profiling families waiting for service, or struggling with lack of service or changes to service, struck a chord with the public and helped drive the proposed changes.
"I think people were surprised to find out that people with developmental disabilities and their families were in such desperate straits, and that they weren't being looked after the way people thought they were," she said. "I also think it strikes at people's sense of social justice and at a very basic values place inside of us. I think we just don't think it's right that people should have to be so vulnerable."
Barnett agrees there are deeper issues at work. "It's just a very complicated thing, and a 15-minute press conference, and a 12-point plan, as far as I can tell anyway, they don't get to the root of the issue, which is how we treat people with disabilities in our communities," she said. "We understand that there's not an endless pot of money. I think everybody in the province understands that. We run a non-profit, we know we don't have a secret money tree. And I think I am looking forward to the recognition by CLBC that non-profits, such as ourselves and other service providers, are working very hard to make sure that people who are vulnerable are well-served."