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Dartmouth woman battling for supports for autistic son after province cuts funds

Christine Siteman has been getting a grant for respite care for her austic son Cole, 15. But the government just cut her from the program. 
(ERIC WYNNE / The Chronicle Herald)
Christine Siteman has been getting a grant for respite care for her austic son Cole, 15. But the government just cut her from the program. (ERIC WYNNE / The Chronicle Herald)

A Dartmouth mother is frustrated over the sudden loss of provincial funding for care of her autistic son.

Christine Siteman is a single mother to 15-year-old Cole. Up until recently, Siteman was receiving about $650 dollars a month from the provincial Community Services Department to help pay for some of the support required to care for her son.

This funding partially covered the occasional support worker for Cole, who requires constant supervision when he leaves the house, as well as a respite worker for three hours a week who provided tutoring, behavioural and life-skills support.

Last week, Siteman was told by her social worker that she had been reassessed for funding and, thanks to a new formula that uses her federal income tax Notice of Assessment instead of her pay stubs, she would no longer be eligible for funding. She was also informed they were counting the child disability tax credit she receives toward her assessment.

Siteman -- who works as a respiratory therapist -- said her income has not changed, and while she can cover some of Cole’s supports on her own, she can’t afford all of it.

“I can barely make ends meet as it is, I’ve been trying to cut stuff out my budget to see what I can do to cover some of this myself.”

She said the support workers who accompany Cole to things like sports practices and other events help his self esteem and help him feel like more of a typical teenager. While she still takes him to the majority of the places he needs to go, Siteman said that prior to using the support workers she found Cole was trying to skip social events.

“He wants to be part of the group (and) like most teenagers he doesn’t want his mother hanging around when he’s trying to do something,” Siteman said.

“He sort of sees (the workers) like ‘his friends are taking him out.’ He doesn’t know we pay for people to take him out, he wouldn’t understand that.”

And Siteman said if it wasn’t for those three hours a week of respite care, either she or her 71-year-old mother would have to supervise Cole all the time when he is not in school.

Right now, Siteman said she and her mother share responsibilities of looking after Cole so she is able to hold a job. But losing funding from the province has her even more concerned for the future when Cole is no longer in school or when her mother can no longer help her care for her son.

“If something does happen to (my mom) I don’t know what I would do, I wouldn’t be able to work,” she said.

“He’s going to always live with me. He is never going to be able to be unsupervised.”

In an emailed statement to The Chronicle Herald, Community Services spokesperson Heather Fairbairn said eligibility for the Direct Family Support for Children (DFSC) program, which helps families obtain respite services for caregivers while their child is living at home, is based on an annual assessment of the diagnosed need and family income, and that a change in either criteria may result in a change in the level of support available through the program.

“While the department began using the Notice of Assessment in January 2017 as a means of more accurately determining financial eligibility, it is not the sole source of information that may be considered by the department,” Fairbairn said. “If a family feels that a change in the supports provided may cause them hardship, they are encouraged to discuss the situation with their care co-ordinator or their supervisor.”

Siteman said she has set up a meeting with her MLA, Barbara Adams, to see what can be done to hopefully remedy the situation.

“I have struggled daily to look after this child on my own,” she said. “I didn’t want to ask for help, and then I did ask for help and now they want to yank it out from underneath me.

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