Blamed and criticised for her parenting
Seven years after he was adopted (as an infant) a child was diagnosed as having an alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder, autism and ADHD. His adoptive mother made multiple requests to the council for support, but these were ‘declined by senior management’. In 2018 she asked the council to accommodate her son as she was struggling to cope with his behaviour. Although the council initially refused to do this, it eventually agreed and her son was placed with foster carers.
She consistently told the council that she wanted her son to return home but that she needed the right support to help her manage. This was the factual situation – but the council’s records stated that she was abandoning her son; that she wanted him to be in care; that she viewed her son as the problem; that she had refused support packages; that she would not have him back. In addition, the council’s records noted its concern about her parenting. The ombudsman refers to these records, euphemistically, as ‘not factually based’.
Instead of putting in support for the family, the council commenced formal care proceedings – as a result of which, an expert psychologist’s report was filed with the court. The report noted that the mother’s inability to cope with her son’s behaviour might have been avoided had she felt listened to and had the council responded to her request for support. In the expert’s opinion, her experience of having had to battle for appropriate support and understanding had been a huge stressor and experienced as an additional trauma. The report concluded that she had given her son consistent care; had fought for his needs to be met; that her parenting had been protective for him; and that the lack of council support had led to the total breakdown. In the psychologist’s opinion it was not the parenting that had led to the difficulties he had, but his extensive neurodevelopmental needs – indeed – that her parenting had protected him from the development of associated mental health and conduct disorders.
The application for a care order was rejected by the court and council support was provided – which meant that her son was able to return to live with her.
The mother complained about the council’s behaviour and this ultimately came before the ombudsman.
During the local complaints process the council accepted (among other things) that its decision to issue care proceedings was contradictory and that it had shown ‘a lack of understanding that parenting a child with complex needs can be extremely challenging’: that it had considered the mother’s ‘parenting to be a root cause of problems, which had subsequently been shown to be inaccurate’.
The ombudsman’s report notes that the council now accepts that it has been guilty of parent blaming – ‘treating her like she was at fault’ – and that as a consequence mother and son suffered distress and personal outrage. Sadly, however the ombudsman considered that nothing more was required apart from a payment of compensation to the family. The assumption – presumably – being that this was a ‘one-off’ failure. Hopefully this is the case – but one wonders how behaviour of this kind could be allowed to go unchecked until a court refused the care order or indeed how a Children’s Services Department could fail to appreciate that ‘parenting a child with complex needs can be extremely challenging’. One wonders too what the financial cost of these proceedings must have been to the authority (and the wider public purse); one wonders if this is an experience from which the mother and son can ever truly recover.
It may be that this is an isolated failure by the authority – but the evidence suggests that parent carer blame has become institutionalised in English Children’s Services authorities. It is a policy that intimidates and devastates those in dire need of support. It is a policy described in academic research, known to very many Parent Carer Support groups and most tragic of all, to Coroners. In September 2021, for example, an Inquest’s ‘Factual Findings’ concerning the death of 14 years old Oskar Nash found that his mother had repeatedly sought help to enable her and her son to cope with the consequences of his impairments – which included high anxiety self-harm and suicidal thoughts. The coroner’s report notes her increasingly desperate attempts to get support, including on one occasion when she did manage to get an assessment of Oskar’s needs – but that this:
made no mention of his history of suicidal ideation, and that there was a one line reference only to his expression of suicidal intent … and this appeared in a section concerning “parenting of the child”. Further, the only direct risk to Oskar which was identified was from his mother’s parenting …
So troubled was the coroner by the Council’s suggestions of parental failings, that he states in his report:
I have noted too the reference, in the legal submissions made on behalf of Surrey County Council, to the fact that [Oscar’s mother] retained parental responsibility for Oskar at all times. I am well aware of that fact but will take this opportunity to say that, in my view, the evidence shows that she did her very best to meet her responsibilities to Oskar, through her own direct parenting and by seeking, for his benefit and protection, the support he needed to remain safe and well. Oskar was undoubtedly a child with extremely complex needs who, by reason of his autism exhibited very challenging behaviour and the strain of coping with Oskar, and doing so alone following his father’s death, should not be underestimated. Oskar was a child in need of skilled, professional support, which he did not receive and, for the avoidance of doubt, I will say expressly that I do not consider that his problems, or his death, were caused or contributed to by any failure on the part of his mother to meet her parental responsibilities.
 Complaint no 20 007 706 against the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames, 2 Nov 2021.
 L Clements and A Aiello Institutionalising parent carer blame (Cerebra 2021).
 Mr Richard Travers H.M. Senior Coroner for the County of Surrey In the Inquest Touching the Death of Oskar Miles Nash. Factual Findings and Conclusions 10th September 2021.
Posted 20 December 2021