Extreme pressure on respite care for people with autism in the North West has left social workers “begging” fruitlessly for placements, a provider has said.
Wirral-based charity Autism Together, which operates a seven-bed purpose-built unit, said it was having to routinely turn away social workers trying to make emergency placements. The unit caters for 75 families who receive funding from their local authorities for overnight stays for their family member with autism.
The charity said the service was already becoming booked up for some dates in 2018 as a result of demand for bed spaces from across the region – and occasionally further afield.
Autism Together’s chief executive, Robin Bush, said: “We’re receiving calls from social workers so desperate that they beg for our help. We want to help – and in the past we could – but our unit is so fully booked that it just isn’t possible.”
Jane Carolan, the charity’s director of operations, told Community Care that a number of factors had been increasing pressure on respite services such as Autism Together’s. One was the drive to bring people in out-of-area placements back to their communities as part of national moves to improve autism and learning disability care in the wake of the Winterbourne View scandal.
Also, she said that service cuts had meant more families were caring for people in their own homes, leading to people going into crisis more often and needing emergency care.
Over the past five years, councils in England have had to make £4.6bn in reductions to adult social care, after taking into account funding increases to cover inflation and demographic pressures, with a further £940m planned in 2016-17, according to successive Association of Directors of Adult Social Services budget surveys.
Lack of skills
“People who have autism are [also] being supported by general service providers, as this can often be cheaper than specialist autistic specific provision,” said Carolan. “Unfortunately these services often lack the skills or expertise to manage people with complex autism, and placements are breaking down.
“This means that we are asked to take people quickly under an emergency situation, after sometimes multiple placement breakdowns.”
She added that the wider situation had worsened over the past six months as local authorities in the North West, where Autism Together provides the only autism-specific respite care, had shut down their own facilities. Other charities in the national Autism Alliance network, she said, were seeing similar scenarios.
Lifeline for families
Tim Nicholls, policy manager at the National Autistic Society, said: “We’re told time and time again how crucial respite and short breaks are for families affected by autism, with many of them describing it as a ‘lifeline’.”
He added: “Where services exist, parents and carers of autistic people tell us they face long waiting lists, and this can put an extra strain on families. If autistic people and their families are to get the support they need, it’s essential that local authorities ensure the services they need are available in their community.”
Autism Together predicts problems in the North West will intensify in the autumn, when a 20-bed Wirral council-run unit providing respite care for people with both learning and physical disabilities will close in the face of significant opposition from families. The closure is expected to save the council £155,000 in 2016-17 and it is commissioning a new eight-bed generic facility operated by Sanctuary housing association to provide a “like-for-like” replacement.
A Wirral council spokesperson said: “We are confident we have sufficient good quality respite provision available in Wirral, in a variety of settings, providing choice for people where and when they need to access it.
“We will continue to work with providers and the care market, to ensure we can meet the growing needs of Wirral people in years to come.”