Rally and Bubble Party for Thistletown Review

Families fight to keep “beautiful” place for autistic children

OPSEU members stand in partnership with Ontarians as we face dramatic cuts to public services.

As noted by OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas, “There is no line between our membership and the public, as we will all be badly affected by the choices being made by the Liberal government. We can stand together to oppose these measures and protect needed quality public services.”

The Ontario government wants to shut down Thistletown Regional Centre even though the facility is an acclaimed, much-praised children’s mental health centre that parent Laura McIntosh says “has been a beautiful, soft, friendly place to land.” 

The McIntosh family was referred to the regional centre in late 2010 after being turned away repeatedly from hospital emergency rooms starting the year before. Her autistic son, Cliff, had been having increasingly violent meltdowns and McIntosh was worried about how his behaviour would affect her younger daughter, Clara.

McIntosh was among the more than 125 people who gathered outside the Etobicoke facility on the west side of Toronto for a rally and bubble party on Sunday, April 1. They blew bubbles to symbolize promises, which are easily made and easily broken by the McGuinty government. Minister of Children and Youth Services Eric Hoskins has promised to replace Thistletown services with community programs.

That makes no sense, according to parents desperate to keep the centre open for existing and future clients. Families trying to find services for their children are devastated to find that the centre is already closed to new clients. The shutdown is slated to close over the next two years.

Thistletown is the last stop for families, many under severe stress, as they seek services for their children and adolescents with special needs, including Autism Spectrum Disorder. More than 400 children and youth from Toronto, York, and Peel regions are in day treatment programs and classroom learning there. For 13 clients, it’s home. Some have lived there for up to 30 years. Families also receive respite – relief care – for their children.

The crowd erupted in cheers when rally organizer Richard Bradley described Thistletown as “the cornerstone of children’s mental health in the GTA.”      

His son, Nathan, joined him at the microphone. Nathan, who is autistic, arrived at Thistletown in 1993 when he was four. By the time he was 13, he was able to return to school with support in a multiple-disability classroom. He now works five days a week, packaging materials in a sheltered workshop.            

“Thistletown supplies miracles for families,” said Bradley. “Never underestimate the value of hope and a good night’s sleep.” 

The Rae government tried to close Thistletown in 1995, but parents fought the closure off. And through their website they’re asking people to contact their MPP, sign the online petition, and e-mail Hoskins.

“I would like to see Thistletown replicated 10 times over,” said McIntosh, who co-founded the Ontario Autism Coalition. “The last thing you cut is children’s services. It is immoral, unconscionable and just plain wrong.”

 Supporters were clearly moved by nine-year-old Clara McIntosh’s words: “There is too much wrong for people with disabilities, we need to make it right.”

 Don McBurney, whose autistic son, John, was at Thistletown for 31 years, said John would have been “in a grave” or a long-term patient at a mental health centre had he not had help from the centre.

 OPSEU Local 547 member Cheryl McIntyre, is a child and youth therapist at Thistletown. Many clients need tailored treatment before they can be integrated into a school system that doesn’t have the necessary support, and there are no community programs to replace Thistletown, she said.

 “Many of our kids have had horrendous school experiences. When they come to Thistletown, they feel accepted, they have a social life, they feel ‘normal’.”

Other OPSEU representatives voiced their concern for clients and their families.

“What’s available in the community? Very little. What’s available is right here at Thistletown,” said OPSEU Region 5 Vice-President Nancy Pridham. “We fought before to save Thistletown. The fight continues and we will win.”

 Local 547 steward Christine Tanner, a residential counsellor, worries that the long-term residents could end up on the streets or in the criminal justice system. In recent years, three clients were returned to ee clients were returned to Thistletown when the facilities they had been moved to couldn’t handle them.

“I’m concerned about the safety and well-being of our adults, along with the community agencies and staff who will work them,” she said. 

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