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Community Services Transition Roadmap hits speed bump

"Clear strategic plan" ready in fall, pilot projects to be announced this spring

by Robert Devet

December 2012 rally at Province House. A Community Services initiative to address complaints is not moving as fast as was initially suggested.  Photo Robert Devet
December 2012 rally at Province House. A Community Services initiative to address complaints is not moving as fast as was initially suggested. Photo Robert Devet

K'JIPUKTUK, HALIFAX - Last September, the Department of Community Services did something bureaucracies don't often do. It changed its mind. In public.

People with disabilities in Nova Scotia have long argued that they shouldn't be warehoused in large institutions. Long waiting lists for community-based housing options made parents fear for the future of their loved ones. Too many rules and regulations made life feel like hell.

People rallied at Province House to deliver that message. People with disabilities and their caregivers angrily vented at province-wide consultations.

"Anything I am eligible for, my daughter should be eligible for,” said one parent at such a consultation. “We don't care about anything else until we have food, safety, shelter and transportation. Our thing is broken at the very bottom.”

Then, in September of 2013, the government issued a document that talked about changing all that.

The report, written by a joint group of civil servants and representatives of community organizations, calls for the phasing out of large institutions, a more individualized approach in terms of care and funding, and altogether a new emphasis on changing services to better accommodate people with disabilities.

At the time the department, right in the introduction to the report committed to "implementing these recommendations over a five-year time frame, with major action steps for each of the ten recommendations being plotted over 2013-14 through 2017-18."

Because the report is so explicit in terms of concrete actions and dates everybody refers to it as the roadmap.

"I really think that this is a huge shift in the government's way of doing and thinking. The most positive change I have seen maybe in my entire career," Jean Coleman, executive director of the Nova Scotia Association for Community Living, told the Halifax Media Co-op at that time.

That was September of last year.

Now it appears things are moving ahead, but not at the pace that the report suggested.

Of the thirty or so action steps scheduled for the previous fiscal year 2013-14, not one has been completed. But work has started on all of them, Elizabeth MacDonald, departmental spokesperson, tells the Halifax Media Co-op.

Stakeholder provincial advisory groups, which according to the report should have been in place by now, have not yet been announced.

Announcements about a series of pilot projects can be expected "in the spring", says MacDonald, who points to the switch in government and the need to staff up for the transition to explain the delays.

And membership of advisory groups will not be announced before March 31, MacDonald writes in an email dated March 11.

In a late February op-ed in the Chronicle Herald, Community Services Minister Joanne Bernard assured readers that she was completely committed to the roadmap.

In that same article, Bernard announces that "later this spring, the province expects to have its implementation plan ready. "

But maybe not. In a March 5 email MacDonald writes "we will have a clear, strategic plan by the fall of 2014."

So what to make of it?

People are concerned. In 2001, a similar report recommended sweeping changes widely supported in the disabilities community, only to go nowhere.

Wendy Lill, playwright and former Member of Parliament, has been advocating on behalf of people with intellectual disabilities for a very long time. She was co-chair of the team that helped shape the transition roadmap.

Just two weeks ago she attended a roadmap progress update for stakeholders organized by Community Services. That was also the first update provided by the department since the roadmap was launched seven months ago.

"After that meeting I am hopeful that there is some real movement happening and that there is good faith there," Lill tells the Halifax Media Co-op.

"Things are dreadful now, [the Department is] spending a lot of money and they are getting very poor results," says Lill. "Strong arguments have been made that [the new way] can be sustainable, and they have leadership that is mounting that argument in a very strong way."

Lill points to signs of things moving forward.

A training program for care coordinators and service delivery people is in the works. The department is staffing up for a major change – a new Assistant Deputy Minister has been appointed and the search is on for an Executive Director. Both positions are to be fully dedicated to the transformation.

Brenda Hardiman is one of the parents who has been calling for changes at Community Services for a long time. She is the mother of Nichele Benn, the young woman with intellectual disabilities who was charged with assault for allegedly attacking staff at the institution where she lives against her will.

Unlike Lill, Hardiman, one of the spokespeople for Advocating Parents of Nova Scotia, was not involved in the creation of the roadmap.

Hardiman is sceptical but reserves judgement.

"I see things going in a positive direction. But I have also been around for a very long time. I can see how they can quickly fall apart. I am hopeful, but we will see," says Hardiman.

"The funding is a key component," Hardiman adds.

This Thursday, the new Liberal Government is expected to present its budget. People who know about those things will read it closely trying to understand Community Services' intentions and commitments for the next fiscal year.

But it appears that funding for the transformation at Community Services will not be part of the department's operational budget and government's financial commitment to the transition will remain an open question for now.

"We’ve asked [the funding] to be held [by Cabinet] so that we’re able to have a gated approach to the work that we’re doing," explained Nancy MacLellan, the new Assistant Deputy Minister, at a recent Community Services Standing Committee.

MacLellan herself calls this "unusual," and explains that it is done to ensure that cabinet remains closely engaged and knows it has ownership of the transition.

Even money to start off the transformation will likely not be part of any budget at this time, MacLellan cautioned.

"It wouldn’t necessarily find itself in the budget that is about to be tabled because we’re at pretty early stages of the implementation plan," MacLellan said.

It may well be too early to draw conclusions.

"I am always sceptical about the pace of change. I have been a Member of Parliament, I know how slow things change. [Community Services] at least has a model that it understand to be what people want, and that is the right thing to do and that meets the goals of the [United Nations] declaration," says Lill.

"We have a sense that we put out a piece of paper that has some good material in it, but when you start moving it through a system that is entrenched, you have to keep an eye on it."

"But," says Lill, "it looks like in its own fashion the department is trying to receive this material and move ahead."


The Department did not accommodate a request by the Halifax Media Co-op for an interview with a civil servant close to the transition effort.


Follow Robert Devet on Twitter @DevetRobert



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