The closure of 10 Early Intervention Centers in New Brunswick is one of those stories that suggests a huge risk to children, and a lack of interest from the media and opposition MLA's in performing some basic due diligence. If you believe, like many New Brunswickers, that there in urgency in helping children with special learning needs, then we owe it to these vulnerable kids to dig a little deeper than we have.
Here's the background, quickly. Early Intervention Centers provide home-based support to children and their parents to make sure that potential developmental needs are met. It is a cruel statistical fact that children with developmental challenges often (though by no means always) live in homes where parents may lack the background, financial resources, and work-free time needed to identify problems and act upon them.
The 17 Intervention Centers solve that problem. The now-closing Fredericton Center would be typical. It grew out of community support and government began funding its success. It has leaders and workers trained in spotting a range of problems, from Shaken Baby Syndrome, FAS, Kindergarten Readiness Skills and developmental delays. They are trained to provide parents with play-based activities to help.
The staff of these Centers have specialized training that is not easily replaced. They also have something else that is very valuable. They have built up a range of community networks and contacts which allow them to get families quickly and easily into the services their child needs. They work with daycares, health professionals, literacy agencies, NGOs, and they have directors and managers who have built these personal networks. This "community capital" is precious and cannot be easily replicated by an outside agency, at least not quickly.
Fredericton, in particular, has a history that can't be easily reproduced. It was the FIRST early intervention program in New Brunswick, dating back to 1978, and its management and board have leaders who were genuine trail blazers. Fully 75% of its clients are in the Fredericton urban area.
The idea that this Center, along with ten others, should be closed in favour of a centre an hour away in Woodstock, is a decision that should be carefully questioned. When you add in three facts --that the decision benefits the Premier's riding, that the winning Center is the one best known to Minister Carr's chief advisor on these issues, and that the whole transition is happening in five (!) weeks-- the decision should set off a few alarm bells.
Parents and educators immediately began asking the right questions. It must be said that so far, the usual watchdogs have been pussycats. Newspapers moved it way down the coverage list. The Official Opposition said nothing. CBC Radio billed Minister Carr's appearance to answer questions as allowing him to "clear up parents' confusion" about the change. I heard the interview, and the parents are not confused-- the minister has not provided clarity.
Given that there are some very vulnerable families counting on us, and failure will cost us a lot of money and suffering in the future, we all have a duty as citizens to ask some tough questions. In fairness to my friends in the media, this is a specialized area requiring some background.
We haven't all had the chance to be minister of both education and social services, so I am offering some questions here that have not been asked of Minister Carr in most interviews, nor have I heard him say that he is asking his staff these questions. I hope this helps community and media leaders put the Department through proper due diligence on this file.
1. What exactly were the criteria used in evaluating which of the 17 Intervention Centers would live or die, and why was each factor chosen?
2. On which of these factors was the winning Center judged superior to the Centers you are killing off, and what measurable evidence backs this up? Have these results been made available to the Centers being closed?
3. Minister, you cited the $38Million in new early childhood money as evidence that these Centers would have "enhanced" services. Yet in the announcement, no new money for intervention services was included in this. (Look it up, there's $16.7M for new daycare spaces, $10.6M for staff wages and training, $3M for autism spectrum services, $4.4M in daycare subsidies to needy families, $3.5M for staff -of which $2.25M is to hire only 7 senior managers-, and a quarter million for an ad campaign to promote your changes.) Where is the money that matches your claim of enhanced services?
4. Given that you are spending $2.25M on adding 7 senior management positions at the district level, is this the most efficient use of funds for services? Since this is billed as new money, what happened to the 14 early childhood positions created at the district level in 2007?
5. You have said that the mandate of these intervention programs will now expand from birth to age 8 (up from age 5). Given that this is roughly a 60% increase in caseload, how will resources be added to ensure that this does not increase the per worker caseload and family wait time?
6. What was the size of the caseload in the now-closing urban Centers, and what will be the costs of staff travel for home-based care? (If the new placement model is mitigating that travel cost, by all means cite and explain that)
7. What was the promised decision date on the survival/termination of Centers, and what was the actual date the decision was communicated to the leadership of the Centers?
8. All families affected by the closure must sign a consent letter to transfer their child's file to the new agency. Will these letters all be signed by March 31st, and will families signing these letters have received clear information on how their child will receive services?
9. What transition planning has taken place in the communities whose Centers have been terminated? Will the new directors have met with each community partner of the closed Center by March 31 to develop protocols for co-operation?
10. As you will have effectively fired trained staff and dismissed experienced volunteers by March 31st, will exit interviews and employment offers have been completed by March 31 before this knowledge is lost to the system?
In one week ten Centers with their own history, successes, relationships and staff will have been closed, and we do not know on what basis. In one week hundreds of vulnerable children will lose their existing support network, and no one is asking what comes next. Knowing the inside of that department, and its current resources and workload, I do not believe it likely on the timeline announced that children will be well-served. I have been proven wrong before, but we need to give attention to these questions so that the politicians and administrators know that we, as a society, are watching when vulnerable children are affected. I encourage anyone who reads this to use whatever platform they have to ask these questions and others.