Austistic teenagers missing out on treatment across the country due to cuts, ombudsman warns

Helen Ward

Bungling over budget cuts to services for autistic children led to 15 teenagers missing out on speech and language therapy for three years.

Warrington Borough Council has now agreed to pay £6,000 to each family of those affected and their therapy has been restored.

But the local government ombudsman, which investigated the case, has warned that similar situations are being repeated across the country.

Dr Jane Martin, local government ombudsman, said: “This failure to provide what is written in a child’s statement – and in particular speech and language therapy – is all too common a cause for complaint to me.”

In this case, the communication and funding problems which led to the service being cut were only discovered after repeated complaints and questioning by parents of two boys involved.

The boys, who are anonymous, were at the same school and in both cases the last visit from a speech and language therapist had been in May 2009.

In March 2010, parents of boy Y found out that the service had been stopped at an annual review of their son’s statement for special educational needs. When asked why the visits had stopped both NHS Warrington, which had provided the therapy, and the council, which was responsible for ensuring students received it, blamed each other.

The parents of boy T had a similar experience, only finding out in June 2010 at their son’s annual review that the service had ended. Their son had not spoken until he was nearly eight as he has a form of verbal dyspraxia and they had valued the support from the therapist. They ended up paying privately for a therapist.

In both cases, the students had a statement of special educational needs which entitled them to the therapy.

But NHS Warrington had cut the service to teenagers due to financial constraints and had not informed families or the council. The council had did not check how many speech and language therapists were needed given the number of children it had agreed in statements needed therapy. It did not review the amount of funding it was giving to the primary care trust for speech and language therapy in the area.

A joint investigation by the local government ombudsman and parliamentary and health ombudsman, uncovered 14 other teenagers who were similarly affected.

The local government ombudsman and the parliamentary and health service ombudsman found Warrington MBC and NHS Warrington, now Warrington Clinical Commissioning Group, both guilty of maladministration.

The council’s assistant director of universal services, Steve Edwards, said: “On this occasion we failed badly, the result was unacceptable and we apologise sincerely. We are writing to the families in question to apologise unreservedly, and a senior council official will be ready to meet with them to hear their concerns in person. We have already carried out a thorough investigation of what went wrong. As a result of this we have put into place a comprehensive action plan to ensure greater robustness in our procedures in future.”

Sarah Lambert, head of policy at the National Autistic Society, said: “Local authorities are ultimately responsible for ensuring children receive the support promised in their statement of special educational needs.

“But the volume of calls to our Education Rights Service highlights that too many families are having to fight for the right support, with many councils failing to fulfil their obligations.”

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