An autism charity has been accused of leaving hundreds of families without support after axing a group of volunteers in an internal dispute.
Autism NI has decided to terminate one of its main family support groups - the Mid Ulster Volunteer Support Group - saying there has been a “complete breakdown in the relationship of trust and confidence”.
Volunteers claimed the move has left around 500 families in the area without much-needed help, support and advice.
Margaret Love, chairwoman of the now terminated Mid Ulster Family Support Group, said she has been left devastated by the move by Autism NI.
She claimed the relationship between the group and the charity board broke down after volunteers disagreed with new rules introduced by the board for volunteer groups without consultation.
“Instead of addressing our concerns and questions they terminated our committee. In a letter to me they said there has been a complete breakdown in the relationship of trust and confidence between the support group and the charity board and its staff.
“Around 500 families are served by the local branch. We were available 24/7 for families who needed support or advice. We could give that support because we all have children on the spectrum. Now, if a family needs help at 9pm at night I don’t know what they are going to do,” said Ms Love.
In a statement, Autism NI said it “recognises the commitment Mid Ulster Support Group Committee has given to the charity and local autism community”.
The charity added: “Unfortunately in recent months the relationship with the Support Group Committee has broken down and it is with regret that the Board of the Charity has dissolved the current committee.
“The Board would like to thank outgoing committee members, and assure families that they will continue to receive the Charity’s full support going forward.”
The charity said the Mid Ulster Support Group would now be run by its Family Support Team until a new committee can be established.
Ms Love criticised the charity, saying: “The local community, the sports clubs, the businesses have always been very generous raising funds so that we could provide services and help for local families and their children.
“This is the thanks we get after years of volunteer work. The central board don’t know the needs of the local families like we do.”
Natasha Scullion, who was group treasurer for several years, accused Autism NI of treating the group “unfairly and unreasonably”.
She said: “We are volunteers. We are doing this because we want to. It is for the children. What has happened is a slap in the face.”
Ms Scullion added that she is very concerned about how Autism NI has handled the dispute.
“They wrote to parents saying due to breakdown in relationships between the board and us the authority of the group was being terminated. How does that look to people? They will be wondering if we have done something wrong. It has all been handled terribly,” she said.
Audrey Junkin, group secretary, said she was “distraught”.
“Charities are crying out for volunteers and they do this to us. HQ won’t be heading out to see families at 9pm at night,” she added.
SDLP MLA for the area Patsy McGlone accused Autism NI of using a “sledgehammer approach” to address a situation that could have easily been resolved.
“The local community and these volunteers have provided incredible support for local families for many years. They have displayed deep commitment to helping parents and children who have autism in the family.
“It is unfortunate it has come to this and I hope Autism NI tries to resolve this situation,” he said.