Dear Mr. Linden,
My name is Sharon Aschaiek, and I lead Autism Resolution Ontario, a grassroots, non-partisan, parent-run advocacy group working to make government-funded autism therapy more accessible. I’m writing to you in regards to a disturbing instance of conflict of interest relating to a specific aspect of the Ontario government’s administration of autism services that raises serious concerns about the level of objectivity used to administer these services.
The Ontario government is in the process of having an “independent review” completed on the benchmark criteria it uses to evaluate how long children can participate in the publicly funded Intensive Behavioural Intervention (IBI) program. However, it has come to light that there are multiple conflicts of interest relating to the person who was hired to do this job, and how this person came to be hired.
The person who was recruited to complete this review is Dr. Louise LaRose, which is problematic for multiple reasons: she is a former clinical director in the government’s Autism Intervention Program (AIP) who has been involved in discharging children from the IBI program; she has in the past professionally collaborated with Dr. Nancy Freeman, the current chair of the Benchmark Development Panel—which prepared the very criteria Dr. LaRose is reviewing; and,
she currently works at the Child and Parent Resource Institute—a special needs services agency that is 100% funded by the Ministry of Children and Youth Services, which oversees the IBI program. These three facts reflect Dr. LaRose’ intimate connections to the IBI program and call into question her ability to conduct an impartial and objective review of the discharge criteria.
Furthermore, information has surfaced that shows the hiring process used to recruit Dr. LaRose did not follow typical protocols that are in place to ensure the best candidate is hired, and to prevent instances of conflict of interest from arising. Inquiries by the autism community to the Ontario government about how this contract was secured revealed that a new system developed by the Liberal government was used—an “invitational” request for proposals (RFP) process whereby specific candidates are invited to apply. This type of RFP is used for contracts that require specific expertise in the skills required for the particular job, and at least three candidates must be invited. Experts in autism and Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) (of which IBI is the intensive application) have indicated that, if this RFP had been made public, several candidates in Canada and the U.S. would have qualified to analyze these benchmarks. The whole objective of an RFP is to ensure taxpayer money is spent in the best way possible by securing the most qualified and efficient candidate for a particular job. How can this objective be achieved if the RFP is not publicized? Furthermore, one would think that the task of evaluating criteria that affects thousands of children with autism and their access to therapy would be considered important enough to merit a fully public RFP to ensure the recruitment of the most qualified candidate.
What’s more, the invitational RFP process the government used in this case requires a contract must be for no more than $100,000. The recipient of the contract, Dr. Louise LaRose, requested $118,240.70, which is clearly above the maximum amount. Even if the final amount of the contract was settled for less than $100,000, there is no reason why it should not have been a standard RFP contract publicized to all potential candidates.
On April 19, 2010, ARO presented its concerns about Dr. LaRose’ close ties to the AIP (information about the unconventional hiring process used to recruit her wasn’t known at the time) to Minister of Children and Youth Services Laurel Broten at an in-person meeting. The minister responded by assuring us of Dr. LaRose’ qualifications and her confidence in Dr. LaRose’ ability to do the job; our concerns relating to conflict of interest were not addressed. The minister has also been made aware of this issue by a December 18, 2009 letter sent by Laurie Mawlam, executive director of Autism Canada, to Lise Bisnaire and Peter Moore, co-chairs of the Regional Autism Programs of Ontario Network (RAPON), and copied to Ms. Broten; and, by a question posed to her by Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath during the June 2, 2010 question period session in the Ontario Legislature at Queen’s Park. To date, the minister has not responded to neither myself or nor these other parties to fully address this issue.
The families of Autism Resolution Ontario are deeply concerned about this instance of conflict of interest by the Ontario government in its administration of this process related to autism services. The government’s refusal in this case to follow established protocols designed to promote objectivity in the hiring process so as to ensure the most suitable candidate was hired reflects a deep disregard for the community affected by these actions—thousands of children with autism who rely on effective and impartial decision making by government so as to receive sufficient and quality therapy.
Children with autism have a right to timely, sufficient, individualized and quality therapy so that they can meet their basic developmental needs. We are asking you to investigate this instance of conflict of interest, and to take appropriate action, so that children with autism are no longer subjected to the risks it poses to the quality of their publicly funded therapy. Based on what is known so far about Ms. LaRose and how she was hired, it is imperative that the “independent” review of the IBI benchmark criteria be put on hold until a full investigation of this issue can be completed, and until a truly impartial candidate vetted through a proper RFP process can be hired.
I would be happy to speak with you in person or by phone about these matters, and to provide you with documents that support the facts raised in this letter.
c/o The families of Autism Resolution Ontario
CC: Premier Dalton McGuinty
Minister of Children and Youth Services
Minister of Education
Minister of Health & Long-Term Care