Some New Brunswick families who have children with special needs say they're worried they may be investigated for fraud after years of being encouraged by social workers to falsify their respite care forms.
The provincial government recently sent out a letter outlining the rules for getting financial help to bring in a caregiver to give parents a break from taking care of their children, who sometimes require around-the-clock care.
The letter, sent to 245 Social Development clients in the Fredericton region in December, states that if the respite care claims are not filed accurately, it could be "considered fraudulent."
But some parents, such as William McKelvie, say they were actually encouraged by social workers to falsify the forms to use government money allocated for respite care for other services instead.
Now, they're worried they may have been influenced into breaking the law.
"To see the word: 'considered fraudulent,' that's a big word with serious implications. That's criminal," said McKelvie, a pastor who has a nine-year-old son with autism.
"You told us to do this, you've counselled us, you've accepted this, you've done it yourselves. And now you're saying it's fraud.
"Are we going to be charged? Are we going to be investigated? Are we going to have child protection on our door? All these things that we don't need as parents [of children] with special needs. We've got enough on our plate," he said.
The Department of Social Development is "unaware of any such claims that social workers have been providing inadequate advice," according to an email from a spokesperson.
The McKelvies say they rely on money from the province to help pay for the extra care their son requires, as well as respite care for themselves.
But they used a portion of their respite money to hire an autism intervention worker to help teach their son life skills and social skills.
"She helped him and taught him and worked through for a year-and-a-half, maybe even two years, to get him to a hair dresser to get his hair cut," said the boy's mother.
"I used to have to cut his hair when he was asleep, laying in bed because he was so anxious about getting his hair cut," she said.
The problem is intervention workers cost more than regular respite workers and that type of service isn't what the money is supposed to be spent on, according to the letter from the provincial government.
Still, some parents say they've been doing it for years under the guidance of their social workers.
"We would get 10 hours for $20 an hour, but we were asked to still record it on the paper as being 20 hours for $10 an hour because they said they couldn't approve the other, it didn't work in their system," said Francine McKelvie.
She says they felt wrong about it from the beginning, but it was for their son and their social worker appeared to be saying it was just "the way it was."
The McKelvies' intervention worker, Julie Wilson, says she's lost all but one of her autistic clients since the government letter was sent because parents can no longer afford her services.
"It's devastating," said Wilson, owner of Julie's Pathways Educational Services. "It's had an effect on employees, obviously. The biggest effect are the children, who are going without services and losing skills."