Toronto parents upset with speech-therapy program

Toronto parents upset with speech-therapy program

Laura Boudreau’s precocious first child began talking early. She expected her second to do the same, but instead she and her husband waited and waited for Miller to say his first word.

Worried he might have a speech delay, Ms. Boudreau put her then-14-month-old son on the waiting list last summer for Toronto’s free preschool speech and language program. Soon after, his pediatrician confirmed that his communication skills were indeed lagging behind.

But it took seven months to get a spot for Miller in a group session that Ms. Boudreau sees as inadequate – especially compared with the private speech therapy she paid for while waiting.

Despite current recommendations urging early intervention for late talkers – rather than the old wait-and-see approach – Toronto’s Early Abilities’ speech and language program is saddled with long waiting lists and has fewer therapists than in previous years.

“That is centrally my chief complaint. I see Early Abilities as being so at odds with itself. Even on its website, it says: Don’t wait and see, act now,” Ms. Boudreau said. “I don’t understand how early intervention is occurring if your child is on the waiting list for a third of his life.”

While publicly funded services often have lengthy waiting lists because of budget constraints, parents say the stakes are too high for chronic delays when it comes to the development of critical communication skills in young children. The delays also raise equity concerns: While some families turn to private speech-language pathologists, many cannot afford such costly treatment.

“It’s really frustrating as a parent,” said Amanda Lee, whose 20-month-old daughter waited nine months to start speech therapy. “Clearly they’re massively underfunded. They need to be able to do more.”

Early Abilities’ current wait times range from five to 11 months between referral and intervention, which officials say is an improvement over past years. The program – which helped 8,000 children last year, almost 1,000 more than the year before – receives more than 4,500 new referrals annually and offers some children therapy for as long as three years. Children are eligible until they start junior kindergarten, when they start to receive support through the school system.

While the city tries to deliver the services in a timely manner, it doesn’t have enough funding, said Nancy Chisholm, an Early Abilities manager. The program is part of Toronto Public Health but is funded by the provincial government.

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