Redbridge Council accused of repeatedly failing young man with special needs

Redbridge Council has repeatedly failed a disabled young man for more than half of his life, according to the watchdog for local councils.

In the past 15 years, South Woodford parents Chris and Mary Busk have successfully complained to the local government ombudsman six times and won three tribunals on behalf of their 21-year-old son Alex.

Alex cannot speak or understand language, but the council’s reluctance to pay for specialist care means his parents spent “tens of thousands” just to keep him in school.

The Busks, both in their 50s, say the council “fought (them) over pounds and pennies”, even over the cost of puzzles for him to use in lessons.

While he now has the support he needs at a special college near Cheltenham, they fear there has been “no learning or change of culture” at Redbridge and that “faceless bureaucrats” still decide his future.

They said: “It has never been about the money, it is inconsequential compared to the level of trauma this has caused our family.

“There’s the trauma it has caused us and the time it’s taken away from our other children but it’s also caused him to deteriorate and we are still living with the consequences.

“We hoped, in the early years, we would have positive learning and that people would come to understand Alex as a young person who will need lifelong support.

“But there’s been no progress for the last 15 years, no learning or change of culture despite all the ombudsman decisions. The council continues to make our lives really difficult.

“Faceless bureaucrats make decisions about Alex when they know nothing about him. None of these people have ever actually met Alex, they don’t come to his annual reviews.”

Annual reviews of the health and education support for children with special needs are a legal requirement and are supposed to be the only time when changes to their care are made.

Mary said these reviews – attended by school staff and “quite low-ranking” council staff – were their only chance to argue, successfully, for him to have a lot of his support.

She added: “I think we are seen as difficult and tiresome by the council… but we are very civil, we are not people who lose our temper or anything.

“Everything we do is about making sure our son has good quality care and a good life in the community. Otherwise he would be at risk of going to a mental health hospital.

“That’s why we have been working so hard, because that would destroy him. He would be drugged, restrained and locked up.”

Alex’s autism and learning difficulties mean he cannot speak or even understand language, although he was able to learn numbers at school.

Mary said he never babbled as a baby and that they suspected something was wrong when he was as young as six months old.

Despite his difficulties, he was able to attend a mainstream primary school, Our Lady of Lourdes in Wanstead, with his siblings.

But while he was there, his parents had to take the council to three separate tribunals to get him vital support, such as an hour and a half a week with a specialist therapist.

Mary said: “At primary school he had a full learning support all the way through. She was absolutely devoted to him and that’s why it worked, although the placement was always at risk.

“But he got a lot from being in school with his peers, just being a part of a social group. Although his learning is very different to theirs, he was developing life skills.

“Most of the other children in his class loved him, they loved looking after him and parents used to tell us how much joy he brought them. He was different but they liked it, it made a lot of them more tolerant.”

In the two most recent upheld complaints, published on June 15, ombudsman Michael King recommended the council pay the Busk family £1,700 in compensation.

This was because some healthcare was “wrongly removed” from Alex’s draft care plan in 2019 and because the council failed to hold a proper annual review, only revealed when the ombudsman “threatened (it) with a High Court witness summons”.

In a press release last week, ombudsman Michael King said it was “incredibly disappointing” that the council was “still failing” the Busk family after all these years.

He said: “These are not the first cases involving the family that I have upheld. We have been investigating problems the family has faced since as early as 2010.

“The council has had plenty of time to get things right for the family. I urge it to accept the improvements I have recommended to the services it provides.”

A council spokesperson said it felt the ombudsman had “made a judgement based on their perception of the role of local authorities” rather than what its “duties and responsibilities actually are”.

Responding yesterday to the Busks’ concerns, a spokesperson insisted decisions about support are made by “a multi-disciplinary team of committed staff” who “have regular contact and extensive knowledge of” the 2,400 children and young people with special needs in Redbridge.

They added: “Parents are an intrinsic part of the decision making process and their views are sought by decision makers to supplement the knowledge and understanding of our staff in schools, the NHS and other services.”

While the council has not yet formally rejected the ombudsman’s recommendations about the Busk family, it has considered refusing to pay in another case regarding a child with special needs, although councillors said they were “uncomfortable” at the thought.

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Victoria Munro

Local Democracy Reporter