Yorkshire Times
A Voice of the Free Press
The Secret Carer
Features Writer
11:06 AM 17th June 2021

A Damaged Child – The Parents’ Story – Part 1

Photo credit: Myriams Photos on Pixabay
Photo credit: Myriams Photos on Pixabay
When I started writing as ‘The Secret Carer’ just over a year ago, we had just undergone what can only be described as one of the most harrowing times of our life and I was told that the best way to make sense of what happened was to write it down, hence my anonymity. But that was nothing to what our vulnerable learning disabled son had endured both physically and psychologically and is still continuing to suffer each and every day since.

I still struggle to understand how an apparently ‘outstanding’ special needs school had managed to inflict six nightmarish months of restraint, seclusion and humiliation on our learning disabled son without our full knowledge. Yes, we knew his behaviour was becoming ‘challenging’ for the school, but they refused to seek help or professional advice from anyone.

Educational psychologist’s report

A year earlier our request for an educational psychologist to provide an assessment was rejected because according to the school “in our experience they don’t tell us anything that we don’t already know”, so nothing changed. Every child with an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) – i.e. every child with special needs, generally speaking – is legally entitled to an educational psychologist’s report.

I then sought the help of a clinical psychiatrist at CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) who asked the school to write a Positive Intervention Plan (PIP) assessment. This similarly is a legal requirement. The psychiatrist even offered to help them write this document free of charge. The offer was ignored.

Several months later, the school finally produced a PIP outlining my son’s behaviours and how they were going to address them. There was also a page at the back which no one at school had explained to us, stating what restrictive measures they would take if necessary, ranging from minimal intervention to more physical restraints. This was endorsed by an organisation called Team Teach, who apparently advocated 95% de-escalation strategies and 5% restraint. Names of interventions, such as ‘caring C’ and ‘friendly escort‘, were mentioned, without any description or pictures. They sounded non-threatening and safe. I didn’t think to check this out any further as my son’s medical and physical needs were already occupying most of my daytime hours. And why would l need to check? I had always believed that a special school would have the best interests of the child at heart. I had no idea…

Reasonable and proportionate

The PIP outlined that one of my son’s main problems was grabbing people and flicking his arms about, with occasional lashing out, so only minimal intervention in the form of ‘blocks and low level guides’ would be used. The school convinced me this was a necessary measure and I didn’t want anybody to get hurt. At the end of the document it asked for my signature, which I assumed was giving permission for only the ‘low level blocks and guides’ to be used. What I wasn’t told was that my signature legally meant nothing apart from having confirmed that I had read the document. Six months later I discovered that a school is legally permitted to inflict any of the more physical restrictive moves, such as a ‘T wrap’, on my son, without my knowledge or permission as long as they felt it was ‘reasonable and proportionate’ – a woolly and subjective catch-all.

But with the PIP document in place I relaxed, confident that his school could now move forward in a positive way. It had been a difficult time for us as our son was going through puberty and, as a result, his seizures had increased significantly. Because of this, so too had his intake of anti-epilepsy drugs increased, drugs which are well-known to have side-effects on behaviour, including aggression. School knew all of this so I was certain he would be treated with understanding and empathy. I would also notify school daily first thing in the morning via email if I suspected he was likely to have a bad day regarding seizure activity, as this would always affect his behaviour.

Removed from class

But as the months went by something didn’t feel right. School would phone occasionally to tell me my son had to be removed from the classroom for his behaviour. I didn’t think to ask how that was done as I assumed he was being guided out as per the PIP and I trusted the school to be following their own guidance document and to be using the vast expertise which must surely come from being an outstanding special school. Often on asking what had happened to cause his removal from class, the caller had no knowledge as they hadn’t been in the room at the time. There was absolutely no attempt to inform us that they were struggling and to ask our advice, otherwise I would have taken action sooner.

Several months later, my son’s behaviour at home started to become noticeably disturbed and intense. We assumed it was his deteriorating epilepsy condition and the side-effects from the AEDs. He started to refuse to go to school – which had never happened before – and he would get himself into a terrible heightened emotional state of distress and anxiety before he set off. Despite his language and communication difficulties he did on one occasion put my hand over his and say, “They hold my hands down.” I just assumed this was on the occasions when he was flicking his hands around and squeezing people and this was done only for a brief moment in order to protect people around him. I was later to discover it was much more pervasive and insidious.

One day, my son returned home with a 3 inch, reddened, oddly shaped bruise/mark on his back. The skin was broken and bruising was evident over a large area of his back. My son told us that “Mrs X pushed me against the wall on to the coat pegs”. My son could not have made this up. He does not have the imagination to invent something that he hasn’t experienced. It was possible he could have named the wrong person, because he can get confused about people and names, but not the event itself.

A red, H-shaped injury to our boy’s back, with extensive bruising around it

We asked school to investigate. After all, he had a 1:1 teaching assistant with him at all times to keep him safe from his unpredictable seizures: someone must have seen what happened. An investigation by school followed which found nothing, though it confirmed my son was correct regarding the object that had caused it. But the person named denied anything had happened; and no-one else said they had seen or done anything. And the matter was ended. What else could we do? We are constantly told a child with special needs isn’t a reliable witness.

Deep regrets

I deeply regret not taking this further after reading the documents from a Subject Access Request (SAR) I later made, which revealed the increasing level of restraint being inflicted on him without my knowledge. But at the time I believed the school was doing the best they could with my complex learning disabled son. As I later found, what they were in fact doing was the opposite.

Photo credit: Jordan Whitt on Unsplash
Photo credit: Jordan Whitt on Unsplash
Eventually we were called in to school by the Head Teacher to talk about our son and – seemingly – to work out strategies for managing behaviour. The head told us not to worry: “He is happy in the school and this is the right place for him.” However she felt it would be useful to chat about any ideas we had in case they had missed something as she wanted to “leave no stone unturned”. We gave six suggestions, including diplomatically suggesting they might want to consider swapping his teaching assistant as we felt the relationship perhaps wasn’t working and we were worried they might get hurt. However we were told this couldn’t happen as the school didn’t have the correct staff to replace them. Unfortunately, none of our suggestions were implemented, and two weeks later my son injured his teaching assistant.

(As an aside, when we later asked for the minutes of this meeting with the Head, we were told that nothing had been written down which is, quite frankly, astonishing given the reasons for calling it.)

Two weeks later, I was called to school again as my son had had a bad day and could I come and collect him. There was no indication from the Head’s request what was to follow, otherwise I would have brought my husband along for emotional support on the 60 mile round trip. I arrived at the school and was taken into the Head’s office and the first thing she did was show me a photo of of the injury caused by my son two weeks earlier, followed by a verbal description of the teaching assistant’s current mental state.

(Again as an aside, this was almost certainly a breach of data protection laws, revealing personal medical information of a staff member. I had not asked to see photos of this nature, and it was wrong and emotionally manipulative for the head to do so.)

I was then told a long account of events from my son’s day, although I struggled to recognise my son as the child depicted. Completely shocked, devastated and broken by everything I had just seen and heard, the head then delivered the final blow. I am sorry but your son will have to be excluded for the next five days….

Restrained by two members of staff

A week later, when I finally received the school’s incident report form for the day’s events, it was plainly evident that there was a catalogue of failings by the school, with little attempt to de-escalate events and no compassion or understanding of my son’s epilepsy and his fragile mental state, even though I had informed them on the morning of that day that he was suffering after-effects from a major seizure. Instead of understanding and de-escalation, the response of teaching staff throughout the day had been intimidating and inflammatory. He had been restrained on the floor by two members of staff. He had been put in seclusion several times. He had had an egg timer held a few inches from his face to make him comply. He was made to clean up urine from the floor.

My son has a mental age of five.

This was three weeks before the end of the school year. A disturbing and extremely stressful process followed where the head attempted to get my son out of the school at all costs, demonstrably breaking the law (the Education Act) in doing so. At a complaint hearing several months later, the school was made to issue an apology for many of their actions: but that story is for another day.

Our son was left without a school placement, and I am disappointed to say the Local Education Authority – who had previously always been extremely supportive – made no attempt to help us find him a place elsewhere. We were effectively left in no-man’s land with our son who was suffering severe anxiety, a new and extremely distressing seizure type, and deep psychological trauma caused by the school’s treatment of him over the previous six months. I have had a lot of lows during the first fifteen years of my son’s life, but this was the lowest. And yet, what upset me the most was…

…my son was never allowed to slowly transition to another school or return to that school to say goodbye to his school friends and teachers…

They were so desperate to get him out of their school they never once considered our vulnerable, learning-disabled son’s feelings during the process by which they forced him out. A special school with an outstanding Ofsted rating? Hang your head in shame.

Next time – what was really happening – the Subject Access Request - restraint, seclusion and humiliation

ICARS & PABBS have a new survey for parents of SEND children in the UK who may have experienced restraint and seclusion in school.

If you at all suspect your child is being restrained and/or secluded in school, or it has happened in the past, please fill out this survey and help get it stopped. This is more common than you might imagine. Too many children are being left with physical and mental health problems, my son included.

The survey will take minutes of your life, but you will have taken the first steps in helping to stop this horrific practice on our vulnerable, learning disabled children. Thank you.

ICARS - International Coalition against Restraint and Seclusion
PABSS - Positive and Active Behaviour Support Scotland
CAMHS – Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service