This Easter, children with disabilities are struggling to gain access to play services as funding for short breaks continues to be cut. Short breaks provide respite care for families and carers of children with disabilities, but since 2010 the money allocated for them by local authorities has been greatly reduced.
Lastest government figures show that funding fell by 6% in the last financial year across England. In 2011-12, 63% of English local authorities reduced their expenditure, a Mencap report found.
“Since our 2013 report, we have seen even more councils cut short breaks services locally,” says Dan Scorer, the head of policy and public affairs at Mencap. “Despite the government recognising the need for these vital services, family carers are still being left isolated, exhausted and at breaking point. This is because they care – sometimes 24 hours a day, seven days a week – without a break.”
“The government has invested in short breaks, but this money has not been ringfenced and Mencap has found it is not being spent on the services it was meant for,” he adds.
Councils assign families an annual allocation of hours of support, which they are able to use at a local short-break provider of their choice; providers range from play services to youth clubs, babysitters, overnight care and residentials.
Single mother Elizabeth Shapland (not her real name) has long relied on short break services to provide much needed respite from caring for her highly autistic son, Aaron. But, this Easter, she has been unable to get any support for him because she has fewer paid-for hours that she can use for short breaks. As a result, Aaron, 13, has had to miss the Easter play scheme at Hackney adventure playground, a specialist playground for children with disabilities run by the Kids charity, in east London, which he has eagerly attended for the last seven years.
Since 2013, Shapland says her allocation of short breaks from Hackney council has been reduced from 150 to 120 hours – this equates to two hours a week. Aaron is now only able to attend one weekly after-school session at Kids Hackney adventure playground, with nothing left for holiday provision.
“This has been the most terrible year yet. Because of the cuts, I have been unable to access holiday cover at Christmas or Easter,” says Shapland. “It’s like wartime rationing, if I eat all my rations now, I won’t have any hours left for the rest of the year.”
The borough has five short-break providers for children with disabilities. One will not be running any services this Easter. Cassandra Delisser, the project manager of the Huddleston Centre, says this is the first time the charity hasn’t run an Easter programme in the 15 years she has worked there. “We do not have enough funding, and the young people do not have enough days to run an Easter session so we have decided to prioritise summer,” she explains.
Una Summerson, the head of campaigns at Contact a Family, a charity that supports the families and carers of children with disabilities, says: “Cuts to short breaks services have further limited disabled children’s chances to take part and enjoy the things other children and families take for granted. We urge councils to think again – the knock-on effects on isolation and health could cost councils more in the long run.”
Shapland says her son’s autism means he has poor communication skills and becomes easily frustrated. “Without the support of the Hackney adventure playground, the number of exclusions and detentions Aaron receives goes up and he is more likely to come to blows with his sister, because he has no outlet for his frustrations.”
Hackney council maintains that since 2010-11 its expenditure on short breaks provision has been £950,000 a year. A council spokeswoman says: “We realise what a lifeline short breaks are for families, so we ensure funding is protected.”