In 2013, Joan Martin’s heart stopped. She was having major surgery due to a life-threatening aneurysm. After hours in the operating theatre, and seven and a half units of blood, doctors managed to save her life. She believes that she was meant to survive because she had important work to do: to protect and advocate for her son, Osime Brown, 23, who is autistic and has the learning age of a child of six or seven.
After she recovered, Martin, 55, continued to pour all her energy into looking after him in the family home in Dudley, West Midlands, as she had always done. “I’m a Christian, I have faith and I’m a fighter,” says Martin. But she had no idea of the scale of the battles that lay ahead.
Her world collapsed on 3 August 2018, when Brown was convicted at Wolverhampton crown court of robbery, attempted robbery and perverting the course of justice in relation to the theft of a mobile phone. Brown and a witness, who were friends of the victim of the theft, insisted he was innocent.
To his mother’s further horror, he was also told he would face deportation to Jamaica – a country he left at the age of four – at the conclusion of his prison sentence. Martin says she did her best to support Brown while he was behind bars, but his vulnerabilities meant the harshness of prison life was particularly challenging.
“I said to Osime: ‘I will fight with every breath in my body to keep you safe.’ But, in prison, he experienced racist abuse, restraint and violence. He suffered from anxiety and depression and began to self-harm,” says Martin. “Yet Osime was graceful throughout, even though he could not fight back because he did not know how.” A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said the department was unable to comment on individual cases.
Martin was certain that being exiled alone to a place Brown had no memory of, with no family there to support him, would kill him. He was unable to grasp the implications of the move across continents that was about to be imposed on him, asking her: “What number bus will I need to catch, Mum, to come and visit you in Dudley after they’ve sent me to Jamaica?” It wasn’t until he was assessed prior to his threatened deportation that the extent of his learning disabilities was fully realised. Along with autism he was diagnosed with anxiety disorder, depressive illness, post-traumatic stress disorder and unstable personality disorder. “My overall impression of Osime is that he is a deeply sad and depressed young man who feels that he has been treated unjustly,” the psychologist wrote.
Although Martin was desperate to halt Brown’s deportation, at first she did not campaign publicly, apart from posting updates on Facebook about her son’s case for family and friends. But then Emma Dalmayne, herself autistic and CEO of the charity Autistic Inclusive Meets, heard about the case. She shared Martin’s concerns about what was likely to happen to Brown if he was forcibly removed from the country and launched a petition in the summer of 2020 calling for the deportation to be halted. Within a year it had attracted 429,000 signatures. Fifty-five MPs supported the campaign to allow Brown to remain in the UK with his family. In the autumn of 2020, Free Osime Brown rallies were held.
Martin rose to the challenge of spearheading the fight against Osime’s deportation and was thrilled to see so much public support for her son. She took every opportunity to speak out about the case in the media. As the campaign continued to snowball, more than 100 public figures, including the former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the Labour peer Alf Dubs and the poet Benjamin Zephaniah wrote to the home secretary calling on her to stop the deportation of the vulnerable young man.
How did Martin make the leap from a quiet behind-the-scenes advocate for her son to a vocal public campaigner?
“I hate injustice,” she says simply. “I have some deep scars myself. I fled domestic violence and I know what it’s like to feel you have nobody on your side. I know how it feels to be pushed from pillar to post and to be bullied.”
Martin came to the UK from Jamaica in 2001 and trained as a nurse. In her early life on the Caribbean island, she tended pumpkins and bananas and helped to rear goats. Her grandparents had arrived in the UK in the 1960s as part of the Windrush generation. Her grandfather worked in a coalmine and for a bus company.
“I feel that the racism and hostile environment experienced by the Windrush generation is being repeated for Osime, a Windrush descendant,” she says.
Brown, the youngest of Martin’s five children, spent the first years of his life with his father in Jamaica. But he moved to join his mother and siblings in Dudley before he started nursery and then primary school.
The expert reports written prior to his planned deportation found that both his schools and the local education authority had failed to carry out statutory assessments that could have identified his difficulties and put appropriate support in place. Martin says that, despite the challenges he faced, her son has many talents and is very empathic.
“He is very artistic and won medals for basketball at school. He doesn’t like to see anyone cry. I remember he saw me crying once and picked up some paper to wipe my tears away.”
At the age of 16, to Martin’s horror, social services agreed to take Brown into care after he said he thought that his mother was too strict with him. He wasn’t happy with the way she put her foot down when he wanted to hang out on the streets with friends until 11pm.
“Osime was failed by the system, which did not give him the right support,” says Martin. “Being in care removed him from the structure I had given him, destabilised him and led to him ending up in destructive company. My son is vulnerable. I think he was maliciously manipulated.”
His time in care was a bleak period for Brown and his family. “When Osime went into care, the light in him went out. He became emaciated. He’s very tall but sometimes he would come and sleep in my lap all day like a baby,” says Martin.
Of social services’ decision to place him in care, the psychologist who wrote an expert report to provide evidence about why he should not be deported said: “Social services were not aware of the severity of Osime’s difficulties and appear to have worked on the assumption that he was capable of making his own decisions in a rational way. There is a strong prima facie case that Osime has been failed by the statutory services in the UK.”
Brown was moved from one care placement to another – Martin believes there were at least a dozen arrangements made for her son by social services. “Everything was against Osime from the start,” she says. “Kids can be very mean and he was forced to take the blame for things he hadn’t done.”
When asked for a comment on the case, councillor Nicolas Barlow, cabinet member for health and adult social care at Dudley council, said: “Osime Brown has an allocated social worker and work is ongoing to determine an appropriate package of support. The council cannot comment further on individual cases.”
The whole family were overjoyed when the case was reviewed and the Home Office decided to drop the deportation order. But the struggle continues. Martin, her husband and Brown’s older siblings are now campaigning to get his conviction overturned, to right the perceived wrongs meted out to him by education officials and social services over the years, and to get appropriate support in place for him so that he can try to move forward with his life.
“My focus is to clear Osime’s name,” says Martin. “We are committed to making a difference for autistic people, particularly those who are neglected, misunderstood and punished by the system. Someone has to be there to speak on their behalf and be an advocate where their rights are concerned. We are setting up Fobwell Spectrum, an organisation to help autistic people, their families and guardians to fight back and overcome difficulties that the system presents.”
Despite the many battles Martin has endured in her life, she is a woman who exudes love and positivity. “Osime is surrounded by love,” she beams. One of the first remarks she made after receiving the news that Home Office officials were abandoning the deportation was an expression of love for those working in the department, something officials are unlikely to be used to: “Our fight shows you should never give up. The Home Office has made the right decision to allow Osime to stay with his loving, caring family. I will respond with love because we know no other way. Thank you for allowing my son to stay in his home and in the only country he has ever truly known. We are grateful. This goes to show that you can respond in a dynamic and just way. God bless you.”
Martin was equally emotional when addressing her son’s many supporters. “Because of you, Osime will remain in his home,” she said. “I have a restored trust in humanity. You have demonstrated what love looks like.”
Sadly, Brown’s story is not unique. There have been many cases, especially those involving young black men, where learning disabilities or mental health problems have been misinterpreted as bad behaviour. Failure to provide appropriate support early on can lead to the disastrous spiral he experienced.
Despite the victory, daily life continues to be challenging for Martin and her son. “Osime hardly ever leaves his bedroom and he doesn’t speak. He’s still struggling to cope. He’s afraid of the world,” says Martin.
But the continuing public support for her campaign to overturn her son’s conviction keeps her going. “I’m fighting for Osime but I’m also fighting for others. I don’t want to see anyone else go through what we have been through. My child was punished by the same system that failed him. They did him wrong. Now is the time to let him live in peace.”