By Rosie and Jo’s mum
When, close to tears of frustration, I told the LA case officer that, by refusing to issue the proposed amended statement which was three months overdue, she was withholding my right of appeal to the SEND tribunal, she looked me squarely in the eye and shrugged her shoulders. At that moment she openly abused the imbalance of power in our relationship. Her body language sent a clear message that she had no intention of working in cooperation with me; that there was no longer any sort of partnership between me and the LA. I decided, at that moment, that I had nothing to lose by going all out to force them to place her in the school of our choice.
In any meeting or conversation between a parent of a child with additional needs and a professional, the parent has less information, less power and a lot more to lose than the professional.
- The professional is one of a group of people in their role or similar; the parent is often alone.
- The professional is usually assumed to be telling the truth because they are seen as having no reason to lie.
- The professional is focusing temporarily on one of many children on their caseload; the parent is deeply emotionally invested in protecting and providing for their own child.
- If the parent disagrees with the professional there is a risk that they will be subjected to a child protection investigation, resulting in their children being removed.
- Professionals can refuse to implement support that children need in school with no repercussions; parents can be forced to send a child into that damaging school environment under threat of prosecution for non-attendance.
- The parent’s own behaviour, mental health and emotional well-being can be recorded, sometimes falsely, and used against them inappropriately to force them to make decisions they know are wrong.
- The professional chooses what is recorded as fact; the parent only gets to ask that errors are corrected and information provided by them is recorded as views.
When a professional is with an exhausted, frustrated and desperate parent, who can hold back the tears no longer as they come up against the latest brick wall, they are faced with a choice. They can put themselves in that parent’s shoes for a moment and understand that this is a normal and reasonable response to the situation this parent is in. Alternatively, they can record and report widely that this parent is anxious, over-emotional, clearly not coping and therefore not a reliable advocate for the child. By doing so, they can silence the one voice that is speaking solely as the child’s advocate, thereby also silencing the child’s voice.
I have personally experienced mostly professionals who behave ethically and do their best in difficult circumstances but I have also been labelled as over-emotional or anxious by professionals who wanted to undermine my ability to advocate for my children. My one formal complaint about this was ignored by Social Care.
Once one party in a negotiation holds more power, it can be very easy for them to abuse it and tip the balance further in their favour. A school can prevent a parent from forcing them to implement an effective support plan by raising a child protection concern (sometimes about a different child in the family) whenever a letter of complaint arrives. The incidence of this, worryingly, seems to be increasing. Also, professionals can use child protection procedures to prevent parents from seeking assessments that would provide evidence of the support the child needs.
Most parents step into the SEND world uninitiated in the ways of the system. They, quite rightly, expect professionals to tell them the truth and act in the best interests of the child. Anyone who spends time with these parents will hear numerous stories of how they came to realise that they had been spun a line; that their child had missed out on support they needed because they were told it wasn’t available or the child didn’t meet the threshold. This is where the imbalance of power begins.
It can continue in meetings where professionals exchange personal greetings as they arrive to show parents what great friends they are or they call each other by their names but use ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’ for the parents.
Other strategies include:
- arranging a pre-meeting-meeting that the parents don’t know about until they arrive and it has already happened
- presenting parents with reports at the meeting where they will be discussed, giving them no chance to read, process and respond to the information they contain
- circulating minutes to the professionals but not the parents
- agreeing to actions they have no intention of carrying out
- inviting the parent in to meet one person then ambushing them with a roomful of professionals
- denying opinions they have expressed previously then suggesting that the parent is misreporting what has been said
- engaging in a side-conversation in a meeting so that the parent cannot listen to everything that is being said
- ignoring emails or not fully answering emails with information that the parent has a right to know
I’m sure there are plenty more but these are the ones I have experienced personally, all of them on more than one occasion.
When Jo was unable to attend school for months, there was a placement available for one day a week, where they offered hands-on activities in the mornings and classroom time in the afternoon. Her trauma and anxiety meant she couldn’t face the classroom activities but she needed those hands-on mornings. One comment from an educational psychologist who had met her once (for five minutes) was used by the LA case officer to justify refusing her access to the placement unless she attended for the whole day. The LA case officer concerned disregarded my explanations in favour of this one comment in one meeting that had been held in my absence. He chose to present a brick wall rather than to listen and try to understand further. He had the power to choose flimsy evidence on which to base his decision and stick to it rigidly, ignoring those who knew her best and choosing not to consult anybody else. By abusing his power in this way, he did further harm to an already severely anxious and traumatised child but there would never be any way for him to be held accountable.
If parents and professionals are to work together successfully for the benefit of the child, there are some unwritten rules we all need to follow.
Parents need to:
- Treat everyone else in the room with courtesy and respect regardless of the history between them.
- Remain calm and keep an open mind about suggestions made by professionals
- Try to ensure that each professional has all the information they require to make a good decision.
- Understand that everyone else in the room has a number of other children to consider and budget restraints to consider.
- Understand that the person telling you news you don’t want to hear is not necessarily the person who made that decision.
- If you need to challenge a decision, ask what is the best way to do that.
- Remember that the vast majority of professionals you come across are in their role because they want to help children.
Professionals need to:
- Be mindful of the imbalance of power and make conscious efforts to redress it wherever and whenever possible.
- Remember that parents are usually experts in their own children. If they tell you that something will not work for their child, listen carefully to the reasons why.
- Be open and honest in all communications with parents.
- Let parents know if you are invited to attend a meeting about their child.
- Use the parents names. If you can’t remember them, ask.
- Do not engage in gossip and speculation about families.
- If you express an opinion that you later need to withdraw, don’t deny it. Explain that you made a misjudgement and retract it openly and honestly.
- If you have a conversation about a family, record it and expect other professionals to do the same, including the sources of any information they are sharing and remember that the family is likely to read it.
- If a parent appears to be tired, anxious or emotional, acknowledge that it could be a normal response to the stressful situation they find themselves in.
- If you need to use terminology or acronyms the parents may not understand, explain and clarify without needing to be asked.
- If you are talking about other professionals who aren’t present by name, explain their role and how it is relevant to the child you are discussing.
- Do not use referrals to social care as a way to control parents who are legitimately challenging decisions that have been made about their child. If you become aware that another professional is doing this, report it.
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