Norfolk charity’s anger after last minute funding cut

Families of children with Asperger Syndrome desperate for a much- needed break could be left in the lurch after a county council decision only to fund projects for children who are severely disabled.

Norfolk-based charity Asperger East Anglia has been left reeling after a deal with Norfolk County Council to provide respite breaks to children and families was scrapped barely a month before it was due to start on April 1.

County Hall officials pulled the plug on the contract on March 3, citing moves to tighten up the criteria for the kinds of youngsters it could support to those with severe disabilities, while less money was available from its early intervention grant. But the decision has angered the charity and its trustees who claim it has left them in the lurch financially and given them no time to secure alternative funds.

The service provides parents with breaks of up to 30 hours a month while the child with Asperger Syndrome gets the chance to try out new activities and meet new people in a caring and safe environment.

Thecla Fellas, children and youth service manager at Asperger East Anglia, which is based in the Charing Cross Centre in Norwich, said the decision would not only place more pressure on families because of the loss of much-needed breaks, but would mean that a member of staff would now have to be made redundant. She said in December, two months after the council awarded the contract, council officials had spoken about extending the three-year deal by a further 12 months and had given no indication that it would not go ahead.

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'At one meeting we were told that we probably wouldn't get all the money we asked for, but there was no indication they would take it away completely,' Ms Fellas said. 'We are subsequently not in a position to give the 17 families we currently support any reasonable notice that their care arrangements will cease, nor give our staff any warning of redundancy and our volunteer carers any notice that their support is no longer required. We have been left with no option but to close this valuable service at the end of the month.'

She added that the charity was seeking advice to see if the decision amounted to discrimination.

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'We find ourselves in a position whereby we would have better off to have lost the respite care bid along with our youth service bid back in October as we would have then had six months' notice to replace the �59,000 we have lost in total for these two services.'

Alison Thomas, the county council's cabinet member for children's services, said the authority still provided breaks to about 1,800 children and the decision was a reflection of the difficult decisions the authority needed to make in the wake of budget cuts nationally.

'Back in October we told 22 organisations, that had submitted bids to us to provide short-break services, that their bid had met our bidding criteria, but at that stage we weren't clear what level of funding we were to receive from the government or how our overall council budget would be allocated, and therefore we couldn't issue contracts at that stage,' Mrs Thomas said. 'With the council budget confirmed and us receiving reduced levels of funding, we have had to revisit those bids and assess them against the national criteria for commissioning short-break services.

'This guidance specifically states that funding should primarily be used to provide breaks for severely disabled children,' she added. 'In not being able to grant funding to Asperger East Anglia we are in no way saying that children with Asperger Syndrome do not have challenging needs or are not deserving of shortbreaks.

'The other 21 bids simply look to provide a shortbreak service to children who are considered to have more severe physical and learning disabilities.'

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