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Accountability Disability minister Anne Rabbitte slams 'woeful' autism services waiting list

'I do not accept any parent receiving a letter being told their child won't be seen until 2024 or 2025, as that is woeful neglect to put that on paper'

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Fianna Fáil’s Anne Rabbitte

Fianna Fáil’s Anne Rabbitte

Fianna Fáil’s Anne Rabbitte

Junior Disability Minister Anne Rabbitte has said the health system needs to be held accountable for waiting lists and warned that children's autism services are being affected by staffing issues.

"I do not accept any parent receiving a letter being told their child won't be seen until 2024 or 2025, as that is woeful neglect to put that on paper," the Fianna Fáil TD said.

Parents have been speaking out about the significant delays they are experiencing accessing services for children with autism.

Some say their children have received no therapy since the pandemic started, while others have reported waiting up to three years for an assessment.

"It's not today or yesterday that disability services or accessing assessments have been wrong, it's been wrong long before I came into the post," Ms Rabbitte said.

"I am genuinely trying to change it."

She recently conducted a census of employees and found that child autism services are operating at 75pc staff capacity.

"The plan for 2022 is to fill approximately 230 posts. That will be a 50pc increase in people in jobs, delivering the services," she said.

Last September, the Progressing Disability Services for Children and Young People (PDS) programme came into operation. The cyber attack on the HSE and the Covid-19 pandemic delayed its roll-out.

Under the PDS scheme, therapists are grouped into regional teams that are sent to schools and clinics when needed.

The HSE said the aim of the scheme is to deliver an equitable and consistent service for children with complex needs.

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"The first thing I've done is put in place the 91 teams across the country," Ms Rabbitte said.

"That means you have a team closer to your home and great access to the help you need.

"It hasn't been easy. It has been painful and difficult, but that job is now done.

"Within the early part of 2020, everything was paused completely. Therapies had to be delivered in alternative fashion.

"I'm hopeful with the reconfiguration of services and additional staff and better communication from HSE to the parents, that we will see a more streamlined approach to the delivery of services."

Ms Rabbitte said she intends to meet parents across the country to hear their concerns.

"I will be meeting the various Children's Disability Network teams and parents and having an open session to take on board the frustrations. Parents feel they have been forgotten about," she said. "I can't imagine their frustration when they are already waiting two years on a waiting list.

"What I need is to work with [Health] Minister [Stephen] Donnelly. We need a system of accountability to see how many people and children are being seen on a weekly basis."

The Herald spoke to parents who are considering leaving Ireland due to lengthy waiting lists here.

Jaqueline Ercolani, a mother of twins diagnosed with autism, said she used her savings to pay for private healthcare for her three-year-old twins, Leonardo and Victoria.

Ms Ercolani feared the lack of available therapies could have long-lasting implications for her children and travelled to her native Brazil in December, where she was immediately able to access similar services.

"We were attracted to come here to establish a family and job opportunities, but we weren't aware of the poor health service until we became parents to kids with additional needs," Ms Ercolani said.

A HSE spokesperson said the implementation of the PDS programme means services are now based on the needs of the child rather than their diagnosis.

The spokesperson added: "Children's disability services are considered an essential service and have been prioritised wherever possible."

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