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Questions remain about Christina School District's suspension of autism respite program

Delaware Public Media

Attendees say a town hall addressing an autism respite program’s suspension left them with few answers.

Acting Delaware Autism Program Director Vince Winterling faced questions about the respite program’s financial health. Advocates from Autism Delaware and parents of autistic children say they were disappointed by his inability to give them answers.

Winterling says overtime costs prompted the program’s suspension. He told attendees the Christina School District exhausted its entire respite budget in the first two months of the fiscal year.

State Rep. Kim Williams attended the meeting. She said Christina just received its funding from the state budget at the end of June.

“The budget was finalized for this school year," she said. "How are they already out of money? Like explain to us, how are they already out of money?”

But a spokeswoman for Christina said money is still available for the program. A Christina spokeswoman calls Winterling's claim on the budget inaccurate.

Annalisa Ekbladh with Autism Delaware said that raises more questions for her.

"If the funds have not been exhausted, why was the program so abruptly suspended," she said. "And I think we didn't get the full picture of where we are with funding, what the problem is and why this wasn't brought to anyone's attention before suspension of the program."

Williams said the school district has done a poor job communicating information about the program’s status with families.

“Before cutting off the services, why didn’t they come to the autism community, why didn’t they engage in conversations with the Dept. of Ed to see what type of solutions they could come up with,” she said.

The respite program offered home care for children in the autism program while their parents are away. Eligible students’ families were able to get 24 hours a month and an additional 7 days a year. School officials say they will still honor requests for respite care by parents who had already booked the time before the program halted on October 1st. Many parents at the town hall expressed surprise to hear those hours were going to be honored.

But some parents who had booked respite care services say their reservations have been canceled.

Autism Delaware Executive Director Brian Hall recounted the story of a one dad's child who was left at school because he said the respite provider was told they could no longer provide services.

"That's the concern," he said. "That our kids are going to be dropped off. It doesn't matter that families need this and need adequate time if there's going to be a change. There needs to be adequate time to prepare."

Winterling said the school district is considering contracting out respite care services. But Hall said they need more information on the reasons the program was suspended first.

Officials at the Delaware Department of Education say they found out Christina was suspending the respite program on Facebook.

A DOE spokeswoman says Christina requested $750,000 in respite care funding the day after alerting parents of the program’s suspension last week. But the state has already started the Fiscal Year 2021 budget cycle.

The president of the Christina School Board and three school board members did not respond to requests for comment. 

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