John’s’ story was featured on Radio 4’s documentary, The Untold, on 21 Dec 2020 and can be listened to HERE
As with Lucas’ Story, the story below, as told by John’s mother (identified as ‘Tanya’ in the broadcast), highlights in just what way vulnerable autistic children and adults can become criminalised by the very statutory services whose duty it is to safeguard them.
In May 2019 at 5.30 in the morning, armed police knocked on the door of our home and demanded that 17 year old John come downstairs with his hands in full sight. Six units of armed police, and numerous officers carrying automatic weapons filled our driveway.
That day marked the start of a series of events which rapidly unfolded and resulted in an emergency court hearing 3 days later where John was deemed to be at significant risk of harm to himself and others, and beyond parental control. He was moved to a placement with 24-hour supervision under a Deprivation of Liberty Safeguard (DoLS) order. John remained away from home for a period of 6 months, a time that coincided with the first national lockdown during the Coronavirus pandemic. Despite psychiatrists’ reports stating he needed a ‘highly therapeutic’ placement he received no structured programme of support during this time.
John is a young man with high functioning autism or ASD with a PDA (pathological demand avoidant) profile. He was initially diagnosed with ADHD in year 3 at school following a history of emotional regulation difficulties where he would become overloaded and have ‘meltdowns’ since nursery school. John’s first primary school tried to be nurturing and understanding but his difficulties were interpreted as poor behaviour and he started to be excluded formally excluded from the age of 6, or year 1. In year 4, at the age of 9, he made a ‘managed move’ to another mainstream school after his first school threw in the towel.
John managed well for 2 terms initially, clearly masking huge anxieties, however a meltdown provoked by sensory overload meant he was again excluded and his card marked. Despite a 2 year battle to keep him in that school, John’s parents had to remove him in the end after a particularly verbally aggressive meltdown on the penultimate day of primary school. The withdrawal from school at this time meant John had no school when the transfer to senior school came and a formal diagnosis was sought in a hope to explain John’s difficulties. After a year when John was aged 12, a diagnosis of ASD with no cognitive deficit was made. An educational psychologist’s report suggested that John was high functioning in some areas but that this masked significant difficulties in others. John was accepted at a special school a year after the diagnosis and finally, in year 9, he returned to school. After a positive start, the placement failed again after a change of headmaster, which coincided with what the family now understand to be John’s introduction to drug dealing. A further diagnosis of PDA followed John’s persistent downward spiral and finally, in 2020 at the age of 17 it felt like John’s parents finally had the full picture of his complex needs.
The events leading up to the armed raid on the family home started in 2017. At the time, John made a disclosure, which strongly suggested he was being offered the chance to move drugs in the local area in return for money and had been threatened with being beaten up if he did not. This was recorded about a month before John’s 14th birthday. No direct safeguarding action was taken at the time and it wasn’t until 2019, after 2 years of trying hard to keep John in a special school, that multiple agencies finally agreed he had been the victim of criminal exploitation, so called ‘County Lines’ and was at risk of getting increasingly embroiled in a life of drugs, gangs and crime. In May 2019 he was arrested for drug related offences and released on bail. He became more and more difficult to control at home, often punching holes in the walls and going into violent rages at the slightest provocation. John’s family felt abused and bullied and multiple agencies were involved but no definitive action was taken. A move under a Section 20 (voluntary care order) was discussed and then a promise to relocate John was quickly reneged upon.
For the next 6 months things went from bad to worse; numerous verbal assaults at home, weapons and drugs hidden in the house and one episode of deliberate self-harm when John overdosed on an illicit substance which made him high and led to him making open threats of violence to the police. He was taken to A&E but absconded four times in an evening. Even after making wild threats and being out of control and clearly a danger to himself, he was left to return home.
John was placed on a child protection plan after that episode which in reality meant many multi-agency meetings, but no material action was taken. John’s parents were at one stage invited to go on a parenting course which was politely declined. The plan to move John under a Section 20 was cancelled and it became evident that none of the agencies involved, namely CAMHS, Children’s Services and police, had any idea what to do with an exploited 16 year old, who everyone agreed was ‘extremely vulnerable’.
In January 2020, things became worse. The police reported that they no longer believed John was being exploited, despite a positive response from the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) in July 2019. The police now viewed John as a criminal in his own right and seemed determined to make sure he felt the full force of the law. Despite attempts to explain that John had clearly graduated from being exploited and had moved up the County Lines hierarchy gaining increasing autonomy, Police and Children’s Services could not seem to accept that a 17 year old with ASD should be regarded as a victim. In March 2020, John was arrested in possession of Class A drugs and intent to supply. This was while he was being driven around in a white BMW hire car by a London man in his 20s, still while he was just 17, however, rather than see this as exploitation, they accepted John’s description of the man as his ‘business partner’.
John was released under investigation again and was allowed to return home, despite pleas from his parents that they were unable to keep him safe. At the 24hr time limit they would regularly state they were going to release him onto the street, knowing his parents would not have let that happen. Social services stayed noticeably quiet and unreachable at these times, offering no option but for him to return home.
Finally, the armed raid on the family’s house, whilst terrifying, intimidating, and heavy- handed, served as the final trigger for John’s parents to say the behaviours of the police served as proof in themselves that John’s presence at home was indeed unsafe. A capacity assessment, long overdue, showed he clearly lacked the ability to judge the risk he was putting himself in, not just in terms of the short term, but also the longer term consequences and impact on his life as a whole.
This story highlights several deficiencies and systemic failures when it comes to rehabilitating exploited children. In almost two years of watching John’s life spiral out of control, it became evident that there is no clear pathway to rehabilitate children and teenagers who fall prey to criminal exploitation. If they get lucky and perhaps if they live in the right area, there may be third party organisations who step in. John received some support from one such organisation, but they could not really help while John refused to engage. More worryingly, was the fact that between the ages of 16 and 17, John seemed to go from victim of exploitation to ‘autonomous criminal’ despite the fact that the latter would have been the natural consequence of the former.
If no pathways for rehabilitating young people who fall prey to exploitation are defined, while ‘County Lines’ drug rings expand nationally, there is a real risk of the exploited become the exploiters in future and the problem could expand exponentially, seriously affecting even more vulnerable children in future. In John’s case it was the culmination of a perfect storm of events: a profoundly negative educational experience where he was excluded multiple times from two different primary schools then missed two full years of education in years 7 and 8 while a proper diagnosis was sought. Missing these critical years, the beginning of senior school, made it difficult for John to settle in a special school and, coupled with the fact that his peer group would have been more likely to be mainstream pupils, meant he developed a chronic feeling of not belonging.
Being highly intelligent, John remained ambitious about his future. He developed an obsessional interest in rap music and admired the expensive brands that rappers wore in their videos. This became the fertile ground for him becoming exploited and then seeing drug dealing as the means for him to achieve his material goals without having to try to succeed in school.
Throughout this period of time, John’s mother fought continuously for agencies to recognize John’s vulnerabilities and put some sort of specialist intervention in place to rehabilitate him. Numerous opportunities, so called ‘reachable, teachable’ moments were missed and the lack of co-ordination and absence of putting the long-term welfare of the young person at the centre of plans was completely lacking. The term safeguarding was used liberally but an understanding of the terms fullest definition was completely absent.
As a boy who has no formal cognitive deficits and is so- called ‘high functioning’ it is a sad indictment of publicly funded agencies that John’s behaviours in primary school, before the age of 9, have corrupted John’s educational fortunes for life, thus increasing the risk of him descending into criminality or becoming dependent on state support.
This cannot be cost effective for the public purse in the long run, and John’s story demonstrates clearly the effects of sub-optimal health and educational systems in the early years failing to get to grips with the complexity of the problem leading to a poor educational outcome at primary school. The repeated psychological micro- traumas John will have experienced in primary school, compounded by a lack of sense of belonging made him ripe for exploitation. Despite opportunities to create meaningful interventions, none were forthcoming; no agency showed any sense of purpose in trying to provide rehabilitation plan, in the absence of a defined National pathway. There was no link with SEN despite repeated pleas that as John had an EHCP, the potential to utilize an educational pathway should be prioritized.
John’s story graphically illustrates the dangers and ruined lives experienced by autistic people and their families when they turn 16 and become beyond parental ‘control’. Clearly wanting to enjoy the advantages of being an adult, they are suddenly viewed by local authorities, the police, and others agencies, as having the ‘capacity’ to make their own decisions and be held accountable for their actions—in John’s case, when he was clearly being exploited by criminals who took advantage of his vulnerability. When challenged by families to meet their statutory responsibilities to support and safeguard, ‘parent blame’ is often resorted to as a way of dismissing genuine concern and taking control of the autistic person’s everyday life by criminalising or pathologizing them.