SHADOWLANDS

It’s not unprecedented for a new post to act as a virtual ‘sequel’ to an old post; indeed, there are some stories that are ongoing sagas in which multiple posts on the same subject are inevitable as the plotlines twist and turn over weeks, months or years. However, this post is (I hope) the concluding instalment of a two-parter in that it directly relates to an extremely sad story covered last August. This week, Olga Freeman was handed an indefinite hospital order after being found guilty of manslaughter by reason of diminished responsibility. In case you’ve forgotten, Olga Freeman was the 40-year-old mother of a disabled 10-year-old called Dylan, whose body was found at his Acton home after Ms Freeman handed herself in to police and confessed to killing him.

The nature of the boy’s condition was specified as a strain of autism called Cohen Syndrome, rendering him bereft of ordinary speech and communication skills; in other words, he was severely mentally disabled – that is, his mental development froze in infancy and remained that way as he physically grew. Children afflicted by this condition place parents and carers under unimaginable strain of a kind that only intensifies the older they become; add a lockdown to the mix and the results can be tragic.

Last summer several stories emerged that, to anyone who knows or has known a parent with a child facing such difficulties, came as no surprise; a care system for such children that was already underfunded and overlooked was evidently not prioritised when the decision was taken to close down society. Whilst the classroom of able-bodied and minded children was suddenly transferred to the home environment with varying degrees of success – often dependent upon the social demographic mummy and daddy belonged to – the children whose needs impose draining demands upon parents who struggle to cope alone were either locked-up with those parents or locked-away from them. Children in ‘respite care’, i.e. living away from home in special units that are a kind of cross between school, children’s home and (to put it bluntly) prison were abruptly separated from visiting parents, denied regular contact in an act of emotional cruelty that naturally couldn’t be explained to the confused child anymore than an ageing adult with Alzheimer’s could be made to understand why contact with their own loved ones had halted.

Anyone suffering from an affliction, condition or illness in which an intense focus on routine and repetition is a vital element of the sufferer’s mental wellbeing will naturally find it devastating if that routine and repetition is disrupted overnight. When it comes to a mentally disabled child with the temper tantrums of a toddler housed in a physical frame much older, the dangers to both themselves and to those around them when the daily pattern is dramatically altered are manifold. I read of the anguish inflicted upon such children and their parents during the initial lockdown last year, but these were all stories of separation; the alternative was just as awful.

As soon as lockdown was instigated, Olga Freeman was just one of many faced with little option but to care for her son at home, robbed of the usual welcome break school offered on weekdays, sacrificing any semblance of a life outside of her child’s demands and placing herself in his complete control, at his every exhausting beck and call. She wouldn’t have been able to sleep, eat, bathe, read, listen to music, watch television, spend extended time online, conduct a telephone conversation, forge friendships or relationships or attend to any chore the rest of us take for granted without him intervening and screaming for her attention.

Single parents of children like Dylan Freeman find that looking after them round-the-clock is hard enough at weekends or during school holidays, but when suddenly deprived of the light at the end of the tunnel that is the resumption of school, the patience of any saint would be tested to the absolute limit. If one is faced with the prospect of caring for a child with Dylan’s difficulties, every other aspect of life that even the most put-upon (or so they imagine) parents of ‘normal’ children manage to incorporate into their so-called stressful days has to be put on ice for a decade or more. They live an utterly isolated, parallel universe existence, completely out of every loop, marooned on the fringes of a society that only notices them when the child embarks upon a screaming fit at the local supermarket; to say being cut adrift from the rest of the world and entombed with an eternal infant for sole company has a deep, psychological impact on the individuals concerned would be a supreme understatement.

I suspect perhaps the only comparable trial would be a lengthy sentence detained at Her Majesty’s Pleasure, yet even that is comparable merely in terms of time out from the human race – and the sentence usually has a limit on it. Yes, if parents in this situation connect with each other, a community of sorts can develop, it is true; but this still means the only people they are in contact with are in the same boat as them and this is often the sole thing they have in common, forever reflecting their desperate predicament back at each other in an infinite hall of cracked mirrors.

Olga Freeman was divorced from Dylan’s father and despite the product of their union being in her custody, she had (according to the press reports) a history of depression; the CPS, an organisation which past experience has taught us to approach with caution, claimed in the week leading up to Dylan’s death his mother had ‘spoken about being a Messiah’. Whether there is any truth to that claim doesn’t detract from the fact that the boy’s mother had reached breaking point after several months of lockdown. At the Old Bailey trial – with Olga Freeman giving evidence via video-link – senior judge Mrs Justice Cheema-Grubb concluded, ‘I have no doubt at all that you were a remarkably loving and dedicated mother to a vulnerable child until multiple pressures overwhelmed you and your mind was swamped by a destructive illness with florid psychotic elements’ – adding that Dylan Freeman should be viewed as ‘an indirect victim of interruption to normal life caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.’

Dr Martin Lock, a psychiatrist, told the Court that Olga Freeman had developed ‘psychotic symptoms when under very heavy stress because of the Covid-19 lockdown’, pointing out that the mother’s pre-existing condition was exacerbated by the pressure of looking after Dylan and then increased with the closure of Dylan’s school, placing the burden of Dylan in her hands 24/7. It would seem Olga Freeman had persistently begged Ealing Council for assistance in caring for Dylan, though the response was sadly (and predictably) too slow and too late – perhaps the employees were busily engaged in some Unconscious Bias Training? A review of the lacklustre response is underway, though it will make little difference to either mother or son now. Whilst Prosecutor Gareth Patterson QC observed, ‘The role of the council does seem to have been a further source of stress for the defendant at what was a very difficult time’, Ms Freeman’s ex-husband Dean was critical of ‘inadequate support and funding’ of services that left some parents in his ex-wife’s position ‘without a voice’.

This whole unbearably sad story is a culmination of factors that seem to sum up so much about the shameful place our society finds itself in today. It appears mental health issues and autism in particular are fine if worn as a badge of honour in Twitter bios, feeding into the victim narrative that resurrects the ‘fashionable invalid’ of Victorian literature; but greater public awareness in the hands of celebrities and corporations hitching a ride on the latest cause only stretches so far into the less attractive, real world existence of parents pushed to the brink like Olga Freeman.

© The Editor

3 thoughts on “SHADOWLANDS

  1. I am very close to a couple who have a son, now 22, who has severe issues not unlike those of Dylan. Some key differences are that they are financially secure and they are still a couple, despite the huge stresses which have been put on them for so long – quite frankly, I don’t know how they do it, although I may know why.

    The ‘why’ is that there is no structure of support to wrap around such families throughout the life of the child, to ensure that the appropriate services are delivered, when they are needed, and that the parents feel confident that they and their child will be supported on the journey, wherever it goes. In the absence of this process, my friends have simply accepted the ‘burden’ themselves and all the major life-compromises which have flowed from that. My respect for them is limitless.

    One key difference in Olga’s sad case is offered by the absent father, Dean, especially when he was “critical of inadequate support and funding of services that left some parents in his ex-wife’s position”. Some may suggest that he may have played a key role in that situation by his own absence. (Not unlike Marcus Rashford’s absent father causing his mother to struggle to feed their brood – but it’s apparently not polite to mention that.)

    It is a desperately difficult situation to which there is no easy, quick, or probably affordable, answer. In many ways it’s a relatively new situation, brought about over the last 50 years by the focus on ‘care in the community’, a noble ideal but one which presumes adequate care and an acknowledgement of community. The experience of my friends over the last 20+ years is that there was no effective provision for their son’s care, especially after he reached special-school leaving-age, so they continue to take the hit themselves every day as being the only way to guarantee the care of their much-loved son – but if he outlives them, which is quite possible, then it’s a very different ball-game for the poor guy.

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    1. The old institutions had a bad reputation that was in many cases, no doubt, justified – I always think of the horrific ‘Walter’ with Ian McKellern; but at their best they did serve a purpose that, as you rightly say, ‘care in the community’ has often struggled to improve upon. My paternal grandfather spent the last 15-20 years of his life ‘detained’ in one and as far as I know he received weekly visits from family, even if he wasn’t always aware of it. I only ever met him the once, but even at 8-9 I could tell he was away with the fairies; there’s no way he could have functioned beyond those walls.

      When it comes to those who are so severely mentally-damaged from birth that parents have no choice but to devote the rest of their lives to caring for them – and are confronted by the prospect the child will probably outlive them – some sort of institution is essential to ease the burden of that care, if only for a few days a week. The care system in this country for such children is just as underfunded and poorly prioritised as every other branch of the service, which makes tragedies like that which befell the Freeman family sadly inevitable in some cases, especially when Covid has thrown such a terrible spanner into the works.

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