Shine A Light

For Joshua, racism and austerity carved a channel from autism to prison

A young black child’s experience reflects Britain’s reckless betrayal of children.

Amrit Wilson
26 June 2019, 7.57am
Joshua plays on his BMX bike
Image provided by Mariam

Joshua* was 17 when he was arrested. He is autistic and had threatened two carers who lived with him in a flat provided by Suffolk County Council. Despite his age, the Crown Prosecution Service wanted Joshua sentenced to three and a half years in an adult prison, but the judge used his discretion and tried him in a youth court. He was sentenced on Thursday 13 June to six months in youth custody and ordered to pay a £30 victim surcharge.

Joshua’s life so far has been marked by the state consistently denying him the support to which he has been entitled. His experiences are far from unique. In England and Wales alone nearly 1,000 children are, like Joshua, in custody (or immigration detention). Some 125,000 children are, as he was, officially homeless, in temporary accommodation or on the streets. Brutal restraints are being used on children in prisons, special educational needs schools and within the NHS. Nearly 50,000 children have been taken off rolls by schools and the government does not know why. Suffering, appalling inequality, and injustice have become part of the fabric of childhood in this country.

Did those who are now homeless or locked up have mental health problems like Joshua? Were they ‘looked after’ children —the euphemism for being taken into care and the custody of the state? How do race and ethnicity shape their lives at a time when a child is racially abused every hour in the UK? And what if you live, as Joshua did, in one of the deeply deprived areas which dot the serene upper middle-class face of the home counties?

Suffering, appalling inequality, and injustice have become part of the fabric of childhood in this country.

Joshua's story

Joshua lived in a small town in Buckinghamshire in the south east of England. Where he lived was one of those deprived pockets, a sharp contrast to more affluent parts of Buckinghamshire like Gerrards Cross and Beaconsfield. Rich and poor parts of the county all come under the remit of one local authority, which has been Tory for as long as one can remember. According to Saqib Deshmukh, who has lived in the area for 20 years and worked there as a youth worker and senior practitioner for 11 of those, racism is rampant, whether on the streets or in encounters with the police. “Buckingham County Council continues to fail racialised minorities largely by pretending that they and the real pockets of deprivation don’t exist," Deshmukh said. "The arrangements for children from African, African-Caribbean and South Asian heritage backgrounds and their parents/carers and extended families are simply not fit for purpose in 2019."

And what of local support and services for children with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)?

Sarah Templeton is a therapist and counsellor with more than 20 years' experience who works both nationally and in Buckinghamshire. She said:

“The Bucks infrastructure for mental health is shocking — I don’t get a response to emails. In one case they were telling the parents of a 15 year old with ADHD, ‘Punish him, stop him watching TV, stop him seeing his girlfriend etc.’ This is completely wrong, people with ADHD don’t respond well to a punishment system, they respond to rewards. Punishment would make him more violent, [in this case] the Youth Offending Officer was present. So the next step is prison."

Templeton has worked with prisoners at Aylesbury Young Offender Institution, notorious for harsh punishments. She says some 60% of inmates are black or minority ethnic — an even higher proportion than the shocking national average. “There is a pathway,” she says, which leads from neurological conditions to prison, “and yet it is all so avoidable”.

In Buckinghamshire, the safeguarding of children has so far focussed on child sexual exploitation (CSE), and that through a racialised lens. Feminist activist Yasmin Rehman worked on Bucks County Council’s Serious Case Review CSE 1998-2016. She said: “There was a focus on High Wycombe and Aylesbury and Asian grooming gangs and this was of concern as the areas are not far from Stoke Mandeville Hospital where Jimmy Savile had perpetrated many of his crimes.”

It is against this background that Joshua’s mother, Mariam*, a community activist of African Caribbean and white Irish heritage, has tried to bring up her two children, Joshua and his younger sister. All three are autistic.

Young boy stands with arms around a woman and young girl, backs to camera.
Joshua with his mother Mariam and his younger sister.
Image provided by Mariam

Over and over authorities failed to help Joshua

As a child Joshua had trouble sleeping and was extremely obsessive. The first school he attended, in 2005, refused to arrange a mental health assessment. They blamed his behaviour on poor parenting and the fact that Mariam had had another child—old racist tropes of women of colour from the 1970s, which are stronger than ever today. Racism was a constant in Joshua’s life — from racist bullying in his first school to suspicion because he was a practising Muslim and had once brought a Quran to school.

When Joshua was nine, his grandmother died. Overcome with grief, his behaviour deteriorated further, but he was denied bereavement counselling. However, after requests from Mariam and her GP, Joshua’s school arranged a psychiatric assessment and he was found to be suffering from a high level of autistic spectrum disorder with associated challenging behaviours and severe sensory problems. His GP and the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services recommended that Joshua be supported and Mariam be offered respite care. But Bucks County Council provided no support at all.

By age 11 Joshua was an academically able student, enjoyed cooking and playing chess. He would build his own BMX bikes pretty much from scratch.

By the time he was 11 Joshua was an academically able student. He enjoyed cooking and playing chess with the boys in the neighbourhood and he loved working on, and building, his own BMX bikes pretty much from scratch. However, he had become prone to rages and violent outbursts and other challenging behaviour.

“Challenging behaviour," says Helen Ash, an expert on autistic spectrum disorder, “happens when a child [with ASD] is suffering. It should be called ‘suffering behaviour’ and treated as such.” This has been recognised in a recent legal ruling according to which “all disabled children are afforded the same safeguards, protections and rights under the law regardless of whether their disability gives rise to challenging behaviour”.

Bucks council appear to have simply ignored the needs of children with ASD and ADHD. In one shocking case from 2012 the council was ordered to pay out £14,500 and apologise because they failed to provide the right care for a young autistic boy after he stopped attending school aged 13. Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services told the council that the boy wouldn't cope in a mainstream school, but still the council failed to assess his educational needs and he went without proper schooling for almost a year.

Bucks County Council had frequently been made aware of Joshua’s situation too. In a letter sent in July 2012, Mariam’s solicitor noted that a senior social worker had reported Joshua's “aggressive and violent behaviour towards his mother, step-father and sister… constantly running away… constant suicidal feeling.” The social worker made these observations in August 2010 and recommended a “comprehensive assessment to identify his psychological and cognitive behavioural needs”.

Months later in April 2011, Joshua’s school stated that there was a “risk of death” without support. The council’s response was that these were matters for the education department and social services were not able to be involved unless there were concerns about parenting.

Another referral was made in November 2011. This time an initial assessment was completed but concluded that Joshua “did not fit the criteria for children with disabilities team support.” No further action was taken. The council’s policy at the time stated that “children with Attention Deficit and High Functioning Autism/Aspergers do not meet the criteria of the Children with Disabilities Team”.

In July 2012, after Joshua attacked another child, Mariam agreed to his being placed in specialist foster care under section 20 of the Children Act 1989. She was desperately upset. She told me: “This was a last resort, if only Joshua had been given appropriate support he would not have had to leave his family home. I asked them once again for a care plan which set out provisions for him to be safely returned.”

Joshua playing chess with a friend
Image provided by Mariam

Holding the state to account

Later that month Mariam, together with other parents in the area, decided to challenge Bucks County Council over its treatment of disabled children. She instigated a Judicial Review regarding the council’s failure to undertake an assessment of Joshua’s needs and provide appropriate care and support to meet those needs. The claim rested on challenging the council's failure to carry out its duties as set out in national, European and international human and children's rights law including:

  • Section 2 of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act,
  • Sections 17 and 20 of the Children Act 1989 and schedule 2 para 6, s20(1) (c) CA 1989,
  • Section 11 of the Children Act 2004,
  • and obligations under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights read with Article 3 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Mariam also challenged the council over Joshua’s school placement and appealed to a special education needs (SEN) tribunal.

Bucks responded by starting care proceedings on the basis that Mariam was not an adequate parent. This stayed the Judicial Review and SEN tribunal hearings.

Mariam challenged the care proceedings and won. In July 2013 her solicitor Barbara Hopkin of Hopkin Murray Beskine wrote to her:

“... you have come through with no criticism from the court and your son being provided with the support you have always known he needed ... the judge’s pleas to the local authority to come to an agreement fell on deaf ears resulting in the public purse funding three lots of very expensive litigation which were entirely unnecessary. The wear and tear on your emotional wellbeing is less capable of being calculated but I regard that as being the most unforgiveable waste of all”.

Following the case Bucks changed their official policy. Although as Templeton says, their treatment of ASD and ADHD children is still hugely problematic, and of course the lives of the children they chose to ignore cannot be repaired.

I asked Julia Wassell, who was Mariam’s local councillor at the time of the proceedings and a social worker herself, what she thought of the way Joshua had been treated. She refused to comment, citing confidentiality.

After the court case Joshua was returned to his mother’s care and, in what seemed to be a positive move, the council placed him in Swalcliffe Park, a boarding school for boys with autistic spectrum disorder.

But the council refused to provide Mariam with respite care in the holidays, which had been widely recommended, making it impossible for her to hold down a job. And the council passed the papers relating to Joshua’s care proceedings (which had been withdrawn in 2013 after Mariam won her case) to her ex-partner, who used them to gain custody of her daughter.

Watched by his sister, Joshua floats a paper boat on a pond
Image provided by Mariam

From mental ill health to expulsion to homelessness to prison

Unable to get a job in her town, Mariam relocated to Suffolk in September 2014. Joshua was expelled from Swalcliffe Park in 2015 for smoking cannabis. Was expulsion for disruptive behaviour normal policy at the school? “No,” said headteacher Kiran Hingorani. “We do not admit pupils with ‘challenging behaviour’ and therefore do not need to use any restraints or expel anyone.”

He declined to comment on Joshua’s expulsion. I asked Helen Ash, the autism spectrum disorder expert, what Swalcliffe Park’s policy might mean for ASD children. “I don’t know the school," she said, "but it seems they have a selective policy which excludes many children who need their help most.”

Back in the family home in Suffolk, Joshua learnt that his sister had gone to live with her dad and had a massive meltdown. The police were called by a neighbour. Mariam claims the police assaulted Joshua and then charged him with assaulting two police officers. He refused to accept a caution, preferring to go to court to explain his side of what had occurred, not only during this episode, but throughout his life — coping with disabilities unsupported, and being alienated from his family by the state.

Shortly after, Mariam, under enormous pressure, had an altercation with a neighbour who, she claims, was racially abusing her. The police were called and she was sectioned briefly. Following this, she was evicted from her Housing Association property.

Joshua wouldn't accept a caution. Instead he wanted to go to court to explain in his own words what had happened, not just during that incident, but throughout his life.

Joshua, now also homeless, was sent to live in various unsuitable placements and when these broke down, with his mother still homeless, he put himself in the care of Suffolk local authority. In this period, Mariam says, he became dependent on drugs, although his Suffolk Social worker has only recently admitted, rather casually, in an email, that he is dependent at all.

Joshua was moved to Ipswich, a town in Suffolk, where racial abuse in schools is on the rise and gang-violence is a problem. Last year, an autistic black teenager from Ipswich was stabbed to death. In Suffolk itself, hate crime against young people nearly doubled between 2015 and 2018. In April this year Joshua was attacked in Ipswich, though his mother was not informed.

Joshua with cat and guinea pigs
Image provided by Mariam

As this child, whom the state has ignored except to punish him for his disability, turns 18 he will have followed the trajectory which Sarah Templeton outlined from neurological condition to prison. It could, and should, have been avoided but the racism and callousness of austerity dictated otherwise.

*To protect the children’s identities “Joshua” and “Mariam” are pseudonyms. All images copyright “Mariam”.

Edited by Clare Sambrook and Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi for Shine A Light.

Shine A Light contacted Buckinghamshire County Council for comment. A spokesperson sent the following joint statement on behalf of the council and Buckinghamshire Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services:

CAMHS and Children's Services work together to meet the needs of all vulnerable children in Buckinghamshire, and from all backgrounds.

Although we acknowledge that Children’s Services has performed poorly in the past there have been recent substantial improvements. Our focus is to ensure, with partners, that children and young people get the right level of support in a timely way.

Additionally management oversight of services has improved. As part of this social work caseloads have reduced, leaving social workers better able to support children and families.

The most recent monitoring letter of Children’s Services was published by OFSTED on 17 June 2019. In this OFSTED said that Buckinghamshire County Council is making ‘steady progress’ to improve Children’s Services, with most children 'receiving helpful support when they are first referred to children’s social care'.

Buckinghamshire has been chosen as an NHS ‘trailblazer’ to pilot improvements to CAMHS over the next two years. Under the Government’s Children and Young People’s Green Paper initiative, the county is getting £2.47m to reduce waiting times for Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services CAMHS to four weeks by 2021.

This money will also support two mental health teams into 40 schools in the county supporting 16,000 pupils and delivered in partnership between Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust, Buckinghamshire County Council and Buckinghamshire Mind.

Buckinghamshire has redeveloped with partners the way children with neurodevelopmental conditions, including autism, ADHD, and their families are supported; and a specialised new mental health service launched for pregnant women and those who have recently had a baby and their families.

The demand for services remains very high and we are working closely with our statutory and third sector charity partners in Buckinghamshire to meet this demand.

We cannot respond publicly to individual cases but want to reassure families and professionals that we do take on board all feedback, and use this to improve our services.

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