The mother of a severely autistic child has said that had it not been for a children’s respite unit in Derry she would have “taken myself to the bridge”.
Ms. Maria Nash and her family struggle at the best of times to cope with the demands of their severely autistic son, Tiernan.
Ms. Nash explained the kind of impact it would have should the Western Health and Social Care Trust (WHSCT) decide to close the Shepherd’s Way based facility.
The respite unit is known locally as ‘the Cottages’.
“We reached crisis point with Tiernan back in May. Had it not been for the Cottages, I would have taken myself to the bridge. We just couldn’t cope. It really was that bad. But the Cottages was there for us. It’s a vital facility for not just my family but other families too. I honestly dread to think about the impact it would have if the WHSCT opt to close the unit or dramatically change how it is run.”
The future of the unit was left unclear earlier this week after local SDLP MLA for Foyle, Mark H. Durkan learned that the WHSCT had contacted parents whose children use the respite unit to tell them that they could not guarantee respite services on the scale currently being provided.
Mr. Durkan has organised a special meeting between the families affected by the proposed changes to the respite unit and representatives from the WHSCT. The meeting is expected to take place on Friday.
“These parents and carers are saving the health service thousands of pounds currently by providing the daily care their children desperately need. Without an adequate respite programme for these families, the Trust could be putting at risk the mental and physical wellbeing of these carers,” said Mr. Durkan.
Ms. Nash’s son, Tiernan, is also a student at Ardnashee School and College. Principal, Dr. Michael Dobbins, said:
“These cuts to the Cottages are the final straw for many parents already struggling to cope.
“I would be deeply concerned that a change to the Cottages respite unit would have a detrimental effect on the health of some parents and that in turn would impact upon their ability to care for their children.”
Mary O’Neill from the Foyle Action Coalition (FAC) has worked closely with the parents at Ardnashee School and College and those families who make use of the respite facility.
Ms. O’Neill said she knew of some parents who felt “suicidal” as a result of cuts to respite care and added that she feared the worst should the WHSCT decide to dramatically change the way in which the unit is managed.
“Staff from the school [Ardnashee School and College] have had to walk the bridges looking for parents on many occasions - some of them are suicidal.
“We are talking about loving mothers and fathers who have been ground down, sick and tired of having to fight for provision for their disabled children.
“I also conducted a survey over a year ago and 90 per cent of the parents at the school were taking prescribed medication to cope with the stress and anxiety experienced when looking after a child with complex needs.”
SDLP MLA for Foyle, Pat Ramsey, expressed concern over what Ms. O’Neill had to say.
“To hear the words ‘suicide’ and ‘suicidal’ used so frequently by some of the affected families during a recent public meeting was concerning in the extreme,” he said.
A WHSCT spokesperson said: “The Trust is committed to providing a broad range of support for families who have children with disabilities.
“The nature of what families and professionals now aspire to is a personalised provision that meets their specific and unique needs. To achieve this, the Trust is tasked with ensuring that services are designed accordingly and that there is a range of provision that is accessible and appropriate.
“Furthermore, services must be provided within the commissioned level of funding and coupled with an increased demand for short break services the Trust is taking this opportunity to reform our services. This review, includes the Cottages, and aims to assist the Trust make best use of its available resources. Trust staff will engage with families on an individual basis over the next week.”