When I first became a county councillor, I attended a range of good training events to explain the county’s responsibilities and how it managed services. Despite having been a borough councillor for six years, much of it was a revelation.
However, one session about children’s services and the issues associated with abuse, as well as the difficulties surrounding children with special needs or illnesses, wasn’t news. I had had to deal with several cases and, when I expressed surprise to the senior officer delivering the training that he was only focusing on families at the lower end of the income scale, ignoring the middle classes, he was dismissive, saying that it wasn’t relevant to them.
Sadly, it appears that he isn’t alone in appearing unable to understand that families right across the financial spectrum may need advice and specialist support when under intense pressure due to events beyond their control, such as children with debilitating genetic illnesses requiring 24-hour care.
A moving article in the Daily Mail highlights the problems people endure. As the parent of a severely disabled child himself, the author brings a very personal perspective, explaining just how distressing it can be for loving middle class parents to not only navigate their way through public services, but also to cope with “snide asides” about their comfortable lifestyle from the very people who are supposed to be helping, implying that they don’t need or deserve assistance. All this, as his own daughter’s “anguish, her screaming and seizures”, meant long nights without sleep devoted to caring and eventually affecting his own mental wellbeing and stamina in the early years.
Using his own experiences over the ensuing 22 years, he delivers a coruscating critique of the way in which another middle class family was treated at a time of acute distress, this time resulting in tragedy. Whilst he admits that the outcome could not have been predicted, he urges the “legions of bungling bureaucrats, dogmatic doctors and slipshod social workers” to heed the lessons of this heart rending story.
The story in question is that of the wealthy Clarence family, destroyed a year ago when their three severely disabled children were smothered by their mother as she was increasingly overwhelmed and depressed by her caring responsibilities, ending in a severe mental breakdown.
As in all such situations, the local authority is required to conduct an investigation into how it handled the case. Recently published, Kingston Council’s 70-page enquiry claimed that the parents’ affluent middle-class status and assertiveness “cowed” social workers and “intimidated” professionals. Needless to say, it concluded that the deaths could not be avoided.
Yet the report provides little evidence of anyone actually taking the time to listen to the parents, sympathetically debating options in the best interests of them and their children. Instead professionals chose to dictate to them, with the inevitable consequence being profound disagreements caused by the couple’s growing frustration and determination to question outcomes, putting their children’s quality of life before any painful medical and surgical interventions.
In his own evidence, Clarence stated that their struggles were worsened by “constant pressure” from as many as 80 medical and social work professionals from nine health organisations, three local authority social care departments, two schools, and a charity, across four years since the initial diagnoses, making it impossible to reach consensus on anything.
Problems were exacerbated by the fact that no one person appeared to be in charge of the case, co-ordinating support. Despite endless meetings, there was no leadership, and the one social worker who bonded with the family was removed from the case because she became too close to them, only to be replaced by someone required to “take a more authoritative approach”.
Instead, it seems this change merely added further confusion. Such action is, apparently, commonplace, with attachments frowned upon when they should be valued in the same way that the police values its Family Liaison Officers who bring unique insight and perspective which would otherwise be lacking.
Despite the growing lack of trust causing a rift between the bureaucrats and the family, no-one was culpable, except, of course, the desperate mother, who is now confined to a psychiatric hospital as her husband tries to rebuild his life with their one remaining child. And the residual damage? Surviving a personal tragedy on this scale will require huge strength of character and determination.
It was evident that the Clarence parents lavished love and their own funds to create the very best home and environment for their children. Their intelligence should have been celebrated as an aid to providing the very best support, tailored to their particular circumstances and wishes; sadly it appears to have created an immovable barrier – something to sneer at.
Those who enter the caring professions are committed to doing their best, yet amid the talk across the public sector of “integrated care”, this is just another example of bureaucracy gone mad. With no one person accountable, the result was a tragedy which could surely have been averted with the application of some common sense, mutual trust, respect and sensitivity – saving lives as well as money.