An apology has been issued after parents were "shamefully blamed" for cuts to a "lifeline" autism service.

Parents of autistic children spoke out with their concerns at an Oxfordshire County Council meeting yesterday (April 16).

The authority came under scrutiny last month after Autism Family Support Oxfordshire (AFSO) revealed it would be cutting one of its "lifeline" services.

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The authority insisted at the time the situation was not a result of reduction in council spending but re-allocation of money to where parents and carers had "overwhelmingly" requested it.

But Conservative county councillor Ian Corkin said parents had never been given the choice and "should never have been put in the frame".

Oxford Mail: Ian Corkin.Ian Corkin. (Image: Oxfordshire County Council.)

The Ploughley division representative said: "The response can be summed up once again as 'it wasn't us guv'.

"The charity itself is blamed and, shamefully, the parents."

Mr Corkin asked Liberal Democrat councillor cabinet member for SEND improvement Kate Gregory whether she would apologise for "victim blaming".

This was in response to the county council releasing a statement which said parents and carers "wanted the new (charity re-tendering) offer to provide care for children rather than parenting support".

The county council has since given a one-off grant and offered professional advice to the charity following extensive discussions, as an intermediate step towards "giving time" to allow AFSO to find "alternative long term funding".

Ms Gregory said: "I'm not sure why that quote was used again today - it's obviously very distressing for those families impacted and we do need to get an updated statement out."

Oxford Mail: Kate Gregory.Kate Gregory. (Image: Oxfordshire County Council.)

The council had said AFSO were informed of, and understood, the decision to allocate funds elsewhere prior to the tendering process.

A release from the charity in March said it would "sadly no longer be running Easter Activities" and a spokesman added they were "disappointed" and it was "short-sighted" that the county council would "stop the advice and support sessions".

Addressing the chamber, Clare Nelis, who is the parent of an autistic child, said: "I’m very angry.

"The council blamed parents, blamed AFSO, denied knowledge of responsibility.

"This council continues to let generations of neurodiverse children down."

Oxford Mail: County councillors.County councillors. (Image: Noor Qurashi)

Another parent, Claire Wilding, added: "Without AFSO I would have had no one to turn to.

"I am grateful for the information from my councillor Liz Leffman about how this loss of funding has come about.

"We urge the council to find a long term solution.

"The loss of this service is a huge blow to parents who are desperate for help

"Please don’t take this away.

Oxford Mail: A protester pictured last year.A protester pictured last year. (Image: NQ staff)

Conservative opposition leader Eddie Reeves had proposed a motion calling on the council to say it regretted "the way the re-tendering of services to neurodiverse families was handled", but councillors ran out of time to discuss it.

An Ofsted and Care Quality Commission report last year identified "widespread and systemic failings" in the county's special educational needs provision.

Since then the council has agreed new funding for SEND schools across Oxfordshire, among other measures, taking the number up to 17.

Oxfordshire County Council has since (today on April 17) provided an updated statement on the service cut.

Spokesman Paul Smith said: "Autism Family Support Oxford is commissioned to provide after school and holiday activities on a three-year basis. Additional funding to Autism Family Support Oxford has previously been provided on a one-off basis to enable the charity to provide parenting support to families when the charity’s previous funding streams with the NHS ended.

"As all contracts relating to short breaks for direct provision to children and young people with SEND were due to end on 31 March 2024, a re-commissioning process for short break support commenced last year. This did not include parenting support, as this is not categorised as a short break.

"The recommissioning process included a consultation with parents and carers. This consultation did not include parenting support, as parenting support was not included in the new contracts. The Oxfordshire Parent Carer Forum was involved with promoting the consultation and gathering feedback from parents. They did not comment on proposals as an organisation.

"Autism Family Support Oxford were successful in their bids for short breaks for children who are autistic. However as parenting support was not part of the tender for short break services, there was no opportunity to bid to continue the parenting support service through the short breaks tender.

"Autism Family Support Oxford were informed of this decision in April and June 2023 and then formally informed prior to the tendering process starting (November 2023). They understood this."