Keeping wild animals as pets is never advisable, though it has been a regular affectation of the wealthy and eccentric; Dickens had a pet raven, Byron had a pet fox, Josephine Baker had a pet leopard, and there was the famous story of Christian, the lion cub purchased from Harrods (!) in the late 1960s by John Rendall and Anthony Burke, who kept the big cat at their home in London for more than a year until the difficulties of the arrangement became insurmountable. Christian was eventually reintroduced to the wild by George and Joy Adamson, the right environment for a creature unsuited to the enclosed spaces of the urban jungle. The feral characteristics of a wild animal whose natural instincts are in conflict with those of their human owners and the living conditions humans favour make such unnatural captivity ill-advised.
Children are supposed to be the antithesis of wild animals in the home, though the place of the most badly-behaved in it is sometimes indistinguishable from wild animals; children are essentially indulged pets for the first few years of their existence – at least until they start school. Many children are now able to get away with a good deal more than their parents could when they were the same age, for the unfashionable implementation of discipline and respect as administered during the childhoods of most reading this post has diminished with each successive generation. The deification of children by the media and its celebrity whores has elevated the mother figure back up to the level of the medieval Virgin Mary and the children themselves to the saintly cherub embodied by Baby Jesus. Any contradiction to the consensus condemns mothers who can’t keep up with the standards set by the Breastapo, whilst the child itself can rule the roost in open denial of its angelic status.
But what if the child is ten-years-old with the mental age of a nine-month-old baby? We all know how useless and essentially boring babies are – wailing, nappy-filling tyrants who can’t even stand on their own two feet – yet imagine what they could do with their limited intelligence were we to transplant their underdeveloped brains into the body of a fully-grown child. Every random thought that entered their head when confronted by the unfamiliar and the new would be something they could physically react to rather than stare and cry at. Chaos would ensue. And that’s precisely what happens with the mercifully-rare extreme autism some unfortunate children are afflicted by at birth – the ten-year-old with the nine-month-old mental age mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph. This particular child exists and we shall call her X.
X has profound learning difficulties that are incurable. She has no social skills and her ability to interact with others is severely limited. Her incompatibility with other children means her relationship with her siblings (from whom she is segregated) is minimal. She will never be able to lead a normal life. She cannot speak and can only express herself verbally through the most basic vocal noises. If the day’s routine veers from the pattern X dictates, usually by accident than design, an incendiary tantrum erupts. At such moments, X lashes out at herself and her mother with a fearsome strength that will increase as she grows – biting, scratching, punching and kicking. It is extremely difficult to reason with X or to explain a situation to her. She lacks the mental capacity to process such information and cannot understand why her mother won’t simply drive her around in the car, going nowhere for hours on end.
X puts many non-foodstuffs into her mouth, and is doubly incontinent. She views bodily waste as no different from any other substance. Her sleep does not adhere to any regular pattern. She can wake up at 3 or 4 in the morning and expect the day to progress as though it were 8 or 9. X has to be watched every moment of her waking day, placing an exhaustive burden upon her mother; her behaviour and the need to monitor her at all times makes a normal life for her single parent mother impossible and X’s mother has no extended family to call on for support.
Even a relaxing necessity such as eating a meal, watching TV or reading a book uninterrupted, something the rest of us take for granted, is impossible to undertake in X’s presence. X attends a special needs school during term time, with her needs attended to by a team. When the holidays come, however, X’s mother copes alone with occasional support staff. Bereft of her term team, school holidays are a challenge for X and her mother. Changes to X’s routine induce anxiety and upset, increasing incidents of both self-harm and harm inflicted upon those around her. X’s oblivious antisocial behaviour limits the time she can spend outdoors and amongst the public, narrowing her world considerably. Her quality of life is as poor as any able-bodied person could possibly experience.
But, of course, we have our wonderful Welfare State and its social service offshoot to aid and assist mothers of children such as X, don’t we? That unimpeachable gift to the nation that only wicked Tories and right-wing advocates of private healthcare dare to criticise is there to help, no? Think again. Oh, if your idea of a way of helping the mothers of children like X is to throw money at them because it’s cheaper to do that than to entrust the lifetime care of X to the State, fair enough. Overburdened by unnecessary referrals in the fallout from both Savile and Baby P, run along the lines of box-ticking bureaucracy with timid, naive staff trained in rigidly upbeat false positivity that negates common-sense realism, and weighed down by the layers of management that provide its beneficiaries with a comfortable career of paid holiday, pension-guaranteed detachment from the frontline parental war zone, the whole rotten system is the Circumlocution Office turned up to eleven.
This weekend, confronted by a relentless physical assault from a child whose rage is vocally manifested as the kind of screaming that makes a car alarm sound like Beethoven’s Ninth, the sleep-deprived, battered and bruised mother of X removed her earplugs and called the social services to take the wild animal masquerading as her daughter away into permanent care. Nobody rings such a number unless they have reached absolute breaking point, yet the response of the social services confronted by their worst nightmare was to try to dissuade X’s mother; when that failed, she then received a lecture in which the threat of ‘child abandonment’ accusations was implicit. Let the ivory tower-dwelling management Olympians take X into their home for 48 hours and see how they cope. It won’t happen. X’s mother has been astute enough to video X’s rages as evidence, and glass houses are susceptible to stones, after all.
I have been a long-distance recipient of X’s worsening behaviour over the last twelve months, and the fact that she has to sleep within an effective cage in order to prevent her from running away emphasises how unhappy she is with her living arrangements. The physically and mentally drained mother of X has undertaken her maternal duties above and beyond the call of duty, living a life few could possibly picture unless in the same situation. She has done everything humanly possible to appease X’s unimaginable condition, but she has finally arrived at the point of no return. If the social services cannot be there for children such as X, what is the bloody point? And, better still, how the hell can we retain outdated pride in it? If X was an adult in a relationship and had treated her spouse as X had treated her mother, the police would have been involved and there would no doubt have been a high-profile court-case. But a child? No, children don’t do that. They’re angels. And their mothers fail the audition at their peril.
© The Editor
13 thoughts on “A SOCIAL DISSERVICE”
In truth, it is really a relatively modern phenomenon because, in earlier times, a child so distressed and distressing would either (a) have been allowed to expire earlier or (b) been institutionalised, the parent(s) told to forget about her and just have another one. Harsh, perhaps, but it prevented the sort of maternal pressures and ultimate crisis you describe.
Some close friends have a son, almost 20 now, who has been severely challenged since birth due to an incurable brain-defect. He will never have an independent existence, nor even understand simple concepts like food, money, clothes, articulate speech etc. He currently attends a weekday boarding ‘college’ – in effect, it’s just post-school-age-child-care because no real learning is possible, but which costs the local authority £90,000 a year, for three years, that’s nearly £300k, just for day-care. On top of that, he has frequent MRI scans and many other consultant-trips to monitor his condition, a huge supply of daily drugs to moderate his fits and a regular free delivery of adult-sized nappies because he remains un-toilet-trained (or trainable). It begs the question, what has been gained by maintaining this valueless life-form, already at a total cost of over £1m to the state (i.e. the rest of us) ?
That may sound like a recommendation for eugenics, or at least euthanasia, but surely someone, somewhere in ‘the system’ should be making a judgement-call before committing endless resources to a lost-cause such as this. If his earlier critical issues had not been so actively ‘treated’, he would have succumbed and expired peacefully in the first year or two, saving his parents from their remaining lifetime of frustrated stress, himself from pointless and valueless existence and the state from a potential fortune in wastage – and all the while, many other working and tax-paying people who could actually benefit from various treatments go untreated and the sainted NHS ‘runs out of money’.
In days not so long gone by, a midwife would spot the signs of a seriously defective baby and gently ‘put it to one side’, allow it an early, quick and peaceful exit, record a ‘still-birth’, then concentrate on helping the mother with all the immediate emotional consequences. Some would say that was a far more caring approach than the mindless over-treatment ‘just because we can’ that applies today.
My sympathies are with both the mother and child in your post, my contempt is for all the authorities who have vountarily boxed themselves into a situation from which they seem incapable of escaping (or unwilling to try), so everyone loses.
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I read your reply to the mother of X over the telephone and she agreed with every word; in fact, it echoes so much of what she’s said herself.
“In days not so long gone by, a midwife would spot the signs of a seriously defective baby and gently ‘put it to one side’, allow it an early, quick and peaceful exit, record a ‘still-birth’, then concentrate on helping the mother with all the immediate emotional consequences. Some would say that was a far more caring approach than the mindless over-treatment ‘just because we can’ that applies today.”
I agree entirely with the “old-fashioned” approach. I do not think it benefits anyone to prolong the life of a seriously defective baby as in the case of baby X. My sympathy to the Mother and the poor child. Mother has done more than anyone could ask, now she should live her life.
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I cannot begin to imagine what life must be like for the mother of X. Well, it’s not ‘life’, is it? It’s more akin to a version of purgatory, albeit enacted here on earth. In any other context, Winegum, I might have decried your using the phrase “this valueless life-form”. But given what the mother has been, and is, experiencing, I have to acknowledge it as fair comment.
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I didn’t actually use that phrase in the post myself – it may have been in Mudplugger’s comment; but I wouldn’t dispute it when it comes to the most hopeless cases.
I’ll plead guilty to using that phrase but will claim honesty as my mitigation. The example I know closely is more a life-form than a life and will remain incapable of giving or receiving any value for as long as that life continues, hence the deliberate use of the term.
I thought long and hard about expressing such un-PC opinions but, having seen the impact on the lives of so many others close by, and on the rest of us who are paying, I concluded that an injection of honesty would do no harm.
Some would say that the life-sentence being imposed on parents in such cases constitutes a form of ‘state torture’, because the state has decided to preserve such lives, yet not provided the necessary support to accommodate that decision. Where’s ‘Amnesty’ when you need them ?
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An elephant in this room – would early pre-birth ante-natal screening provide a predictor for this? Couldn’t the parent/s then be informed and they be left to make the choice of whether to terminate the pregnancy or not? Some believe that all life, no matter it’s intellectual properties, is inherently valuable. Others believe it is God given, no matter what the quality. Some belief life begins at conception. Others think it does not really begin until consciousness.
I say let every woman decide for herself what child she wants to have.
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Whilst agreeing in principle, there’s also the principle of power without responsibility, so if a decision is made to maintain an unviable life, then the one making that decision should take full responsibility for the consequential costs – taking such a decision, then leaving me and others to pick up the tab should not be an option.
It’s not so much a financial decision, Mudplugger. Not everything should come down to cash.
If a poor (financially) woman wants to keep her “unviable” baby, then I agree it’s ultimately her responsibility to care for the child, but there is no reason the state can’t help, with cash or respite care. Otherwise you really are on the road to eugenics/forced abortions/and even possibly sterilisations for the poor… because the rich can buy all the care they need – as they do with “nannies” for even healthy children.
A recent documentary in which the ‘I’m Alan Partridge’ actress Sally Philips patted herself on the back for keeping her Downs son seems to echo your point about the rich and their nanny network. Somewhat different for the less affluent whose Downs children are way past the ‘cute’ phase and are struggling with the same system the mother of X has come up against.
I agree it’s not just financial and some ‘poor’ mothers may well provide good and continuing care for their offspring with only limited support and respite help. But if her initial, largely emotional, decision proves wrong and she later decides she cannot provide full care, so someone else has to step up to the plate, then the costs start to become substantial.
And when that mother herself dies, that ‘child’ may need complete support for 20, 30, 40 more years, and that’s not cheap. So that initial decision does not just affect the mother, it affects all of us, hence the need for that decision to be taken with full recognition of the long-term consequences on all the participants.
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