1,000 children on waiting list yet trust returns half its funds for autism services
A Northern Ireland health trust returned over half the money it was allocated for autism services - while over 1,000 children remain on its waiting list.
The Western Trust has apologised for the delays that parents of autistic children face in getting either treatments or assessment.
But one mother whose four-year-old daughter is autistic said the underspend was "totally unacceptable".
The Department of Health had allocated a total of £281,000 for autism services across all five health trusts, with each trust getting £56,200.
The Western Trust was unable to complete recruitment and surrendered £28,192.
Jacyln Harron, whose daughter Aoife has been on the waiting list for occupational therapy for 18 months and could face an additional wait of at least 12 months, said autistic children are being let down.
She said: "The total allocation for autism services in Northern Ireland is a disgrace, but it is shocking that the Western Trust returned more than half of the money it was given.
"There are private practitioners that will do diagnosis, so if the trust couldn't recruit staff the money could have been used for private practitioners.
"If they didn't have the money to pay private practitioners, then fair enough, but they are returning money and that is totally unacceptable when you think how long parents wait on services.
"Aoife had been on waiting lists for speech therapy, a place at a specialist nursery, but she eventually got those. She has been on a waiting list for 18 months for occupational therapy and we have been told we will have another year to wait."
Ms Harron said she enquired about the cross-border health directive, where EU citizens have the right to access healthcare in any EU country and to be reimbursed by their home country.
She hoped to get her daughter assessed by an occupational therapist in Donegal and claim the money back through the directive, but claimed the trust didn't reply to her letter.
Ms Harron added: "Getting a child with autism the relevant treatments and assessments is so important, because it can make the difference in your child being allocated a full-time classroom assistant at school.
"It also helps parents cope with the additional needs a child with autism has."
The Western Trust's failure to spend the money came to light through a Freedom of Information request submitted by SDLP MLA Mark H Durkan.
He said: "We are all too well aware of the lengthy delays in diagnoses and waits for support and help which are often explained away by the trust as a result of insufficient resources to meet the demand on autism services. However, now we have a situation where the trust actually received money to improve its performance in service for autism and it seems it has been unable to spend that money.
"From the information I have received, all other trusts in Northern Ireland haven't had the same difficulty in spending the money and recruiting new staff."
The Western Trust spokeswoman said: "The Western Trust was allocated funding by the HSCB to facilitate the development and implementation of a new regional framework for the delivery of children and young people's emotional wellbeing, autism and ADHD services.
"The HSCB withdrew part of the funding from the original allocation as it was difficult to recruit staff within the required timeframe.
"The trust has, however, recently appointed one band-six social worker to address the extensive waiting list for children and young people for intervention following a diagnosis of ASD.
"In relation to children's autism services, there are 827 on the assessment waiting list and 235 on the treatment waiting list as at end of July 2019.
"The trust apologies for the length of time waiting for both assessment and intervention and is committed in its efforts to reduce waiting times and enhance service provision for children with a diagnosis of autism and their families across the Western Trust area."