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NDP ‘tone-deaf’ to families with children that have developmental needs: Kelowna MLA

‘They are not consulting with families…they are not actually listening’
Starbright Child Development Centre is set to close at the end of June. (Contributed)

With Starbright Child Development Centre set to close by this summer, Kelowna-Mission MLA Renee Merrifield is questioning the NDP’s about-face on funding for the centre and others like it.

The not-for-profit agency provides services and support to children with developmental needs and their families, as well as other programs.

In January 2022, the provincial government announced it was pulling funding from organizations such as Starbright in favour of Family Connection Centres (FCCs) to deliver services.

That decision was reversed last fall, then recently reversed again when government decided to proceed with four pilot FCCs, including one in Kelowna to serve the Central Okanagan.

“I’m concerned about the impact on the families,” said Merrifield.

“How they will be traumatized by this decision, and how they are going to be negatively impacted.”

The province has given the multi-million dollar service contract for the pilot project to ARC Progams, a private, for-profit organization, leaving Starbright without funding.

Merrifield pointed out the closure of Starbright will not only impact families with neurodivergent children, but those who rely on the centre for its other programs.

“I had a parent with a deaf child ask, ‘How am I going to survive without them?’ Starbright is an incredible community support.”

READ MORE: Kelowna child development centre continues to shine in face of closure

Starbright does have transitional funding from the province until the end of June, and executive director Dr. Rhonda Nelson is hopeful the centre can remain open after that.

“We don’t know yet what that looks like,” she said.

Nelson has invited both Premier David Eby and Leader of the Opposition Kevin Falcon to visit Starbright.

“To be able to see what we do, speak with our families, talk with the agencies that we work so closely with,” she explained.

In a letter to Eby, Nelson asserted that the NDP has “set a course to dismantle an integrated, collaborative service that works with provincial bodies,” including hospitals, rehabilitation centres, research institutes, family resources, and local school districts.

Merrifield said the NDP is being tone-deaf in dealing with parents and service providers.

“They are not consulting with families, they are not ensuring a continuum of services, they are not actually listening.”

She noted she has been contacted by hundreds of concerned parents.

“These are absolutely heartbreaking stories of what the closure of Starbright will mean to these families.”

Merrifield added she is not advocating cancellation of the pilot program, but instead suggested it be twinned with existing services, such as those provided by Starbright.

“We need to stop the transition to a full hub model and actually allow parents choice,” she said. “We need to consult with the families and ensure that continuum of services exists because ultimately it’s going to be our kids that fall through the cracks.”

Nelson noted that one of her biggest concerns is that children under six years old will not receive, or delay in receiving needed services, under the new pilot project.

“Our first worry is for families and those children that we work with,” she said. “It takes time to put into effect relationships and new services.”

“We have five different departments, all specialists, and they work together to meet the needs of each child and the needs of the family.”

A petition has been started to keep Starbright funded for children under six, and that it be made public how the pilot project for children and youth will operate.

READ MORE: 75% of B.C. autism service providers say care will be compromised under new hub model


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Gary Barnes

About the Author: Gary Barnes

Journalist and broadcaster for three decades.
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