abuse, autism, parenting

What we did during Lockdown: vomit, ambulances and the CMS.

I’m on my hands and knees picking up broken glass and chunks of vomit from Lily’s carpet, while she yells to get out of her room. Seconds later she’s clutching her head, screaming in pain, demanding I cure her post-seizure headache immediately. Less than five minutes ago she was fitting, smashing a lamp as she fell to the floor, showering slivers of broken glass from the huge decorative (and expensive) lightbulb. There is a real danger of her choking to death on the partially-chewed food in her mouth, so myself and Ivy struggle to roll her into the recovery position as soon as we can, while a semi-conscious Lily fights us off. Despite being urged to stay calm and lie still, she suddenly springs up, banging her head on her desk in the process. Next minute she climbs up the ladder to her loft bed, while Ivy and I try to get through to her that there is broken glass everywhere so please just stay still.

I deal with the chaos, picking up all the mess from Lily’s bedroom floor, shaking out clothes from the window to make sure there’s no glass in them before putting them in the wash, heading downstairs to empty the dustpan. Lily appears in the kitchen, despite having been told to stay in bed, then suddenly swears loudly and yells for a bowl, which I manage to grab and hand over before she starts vomiting again. Ivy, who’s been helping brilliantly until this point, turns grey and runs upstairs to the bathroom, crying and retching, the sight of a vomiting sibling proving too much for her OCD.

Having made sure they’re both okay, and dealt with a second major vomiting incident from Lily after that, I’m on hold to NHS 111 on the landline while simultaneously trying to reach my GP on the mobile. I need advice about whether Lily’s vomiting and severe headache are post-seizure symptoms or signs of concussion, given that she whacked her head on her guitar amp; an ambulance ends up being sent to assess her. Of course, Lily initially refuses to be seen until I manage to explain that if she had concussion she might end up with brain damage. I have to then persuade the 111 operator that the paramedics would be able to safely assess her and not be turned away at the door. Lily then refuses to let the paramedics take her to hospital for observation, so observation becomes my job too. She blames Coronavirus for her refusal, but I know from past experience that she would have refused to go anyway.

This is the third seizure in 6 months due to Lily not taking her medication. ADHD-related executive dysfunction means that she basically can’t be bothered, even though I’ve put the tablets and a glass in her room. Or she forgets. Or… I don’t even know, because when I ask her if she’s taken her meds she always tells me she has. If you think that I can stand over my 17 year old twice daily and force her to take her meds, you clearly haven’t heard about Pathological Demand Avoidance. She’s now agreed to take them at breakfast and dinner in the kitchen, although I’m still reminding her twice a day, along with nagging her about her screen time, her caffeine intake, the amount of sleep she’s getting. I also have to check how much medication she has left, otherwise she’d run out and not let me know – it’s taking over a week to get a repeat prescription at the moment, and there’s only so many times you can explain to the GP and pharmacist that it’s an emergency before it gets hideously embarrassing. I have to keep track of when Lily has a shower, and remind her that she needs to wash more frequently than once every three weeks. Even with chunks of vom in her hair, it’s the next day before I can persuade her that she really does need to shower now.

Today Lily swore at Ivy with a word I found completely unacceptable, then argued with me over and over, becoming more and more rude and defiant and aggressive by the minute, not listening, talking over me, refusing to take no for an answer. No matter how many warnings she’s given, no matter how many times she’s told she needs to stop now and go to her room – or just leave me alone – she carries on until I explode and yell at her. And no, I shouldn’t yell – but I defy you to let a mosquito jump up and down on your arm repeatedly biting you without wanting to swat it at some point, which is the closest analogy I can think of.

Shortly afterwards the response I’ve been waiting for from the Child Maintenance Service arrives. It’s a short, badly worded letter, that basically only re-states their position that they are unable to revise their decision and I need to appeal to a tribunal. I fire off a curt response, including copies of the letters they’ve previously sent me with the relevant points highlighted. Look. You told me that my ex would have to go to tribunal to appeal the decision you made in my favour. Then you revised that decision without warning, based on false and misleading evidence he submitted. Now that I’m trying to appeal you’re telling me you’re not allowed to revise a decision, I have to go to tribunal. But you’ve already revised your decision on appeal! Kindly pick a policy and stick to it! I word it slightly more professionally than this and miraculously manage to refrain from swearing at them. I point out that I have full time care of both children, that both children are legally classed as remaining in full time education, and that Child Benefit continues to be paid for both children despite Simon’s attempts to sabotage it, so please explain why you’re opting to breach your own criteria for payment.

I have fought 7 battles over child maintenance in a little over 8 months. I’m exhausted, angry, demoralised. I’ve wasted hours and hours of my time writing letters, waiting to speak to an advisor at CMS on the phone – always at least 25 minutes on hold, registering and deregistering for their stupid online system, appealing to Child Benefits to undo the damage that Simon has maliciously caused, queuing outside the Post Office, or finding myself too angry and fretful to do anything useful. I’m getting half of what I should be paid, with further deductions taken off to pay Simon back for an “overpayment” that technically shouldn’t exist. What makes it worse is knowing that as I square up to fight this battle, there’ll be another one waiting around the corner, and another, and another, because the CMS refuse to take any action against Simon, even when it’s been proved that he’s lying to them. If I win the tribunal, he’ll find something else to appeal against, because nobody is stopping him. My biggest worry is that now he thinks he’s won by not having to pay for Lily, he’ll start looking for ways he can get out of paying for Ivy too. Well hello there, poverty.

I still don’t understand how there can be any loophole that allows a parent to throw their child out and then refuse to pay maintenance for them. I don’t understand how an EHCP isn’t automatic when your child has a diagnosis (or three!) of a recognised disability. I think Child Benefit should continue to be paid until 18 for autistic/ADHD teenagers whether or not they’re in full time education, given the difficulties of finding suitable post-16 provision and of getting adequate support – it’s simply not fair to classify them in the same way as a neurotypical teen who doesn’t share their difficulties. Similarly I think child maintenance should be paid for a disabled child for as long as that child remains in your care, given the economic impact of being a full time carer. Having children continues to negatively impact a woman’s ability to earn – more so if any time is spent as a full time Mum, even more so if the child has a disability. But to change any of this would mean having to campaign to change the law – change several laws – and I’m too bloody tired to think about it. And so we continue on, all separately fighting similar battles; single mothers being screwed over by ex-partners, parents of autistic kids battling to get their educational needs met, politicians not seeming to care how hard it’s making our lives.

So this is what I’ve been doing during Lockdown, rather than joining in with Joe Wicks, baking cupcakes or writing a book. As I’m sluicing bowls of vomit down the toilet, picking up chunks of it from Lily’s carpet, trying to make sure no one slices themselves open on smashed light bulbs, waiting on hold to the NHS and wondering whether it’s safe to have a paramedic in our home during the pandemic, or trying to explain for the umpteenth time that it’s really not okay to call your sister that and no, I don’t want an argument about it, and coping with the realisation that Lily could well have died if I hadn’t been there, I’m very very aware that Simon isn’t doing any of this. So why should I be punished financially for being the one who does?

abuse, Creating a life worth living, Home, parenting

Survival Instinct

 

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(From Pinterest, original author unknown)

I try to remember that long queues snaking outside the shop have been a normal part of everyday life for millions of people throughout time. The scene feels reminiscent of footage from the Soviet Union back in the 80s, when people didn’t even necessarily know what they were queueing for – you joined the queue and hoped that the food you needed would be there at the end of it. Which essentially was exactly the same situation that I was now in, queueing outside Tesco at 8.30pm, homemade face mask in place, anxiety levels rising and a handy stress-related migraine rapidly building. Trying to follow the newly installed one-way system without missing anything on the list, trying to find alternatives when what we needed wasn’t in stock – no pasta, no rice, no flour, no chicken flavour Super Noodles, trying to maintain the requisite 2m from everyone else… supermarket shopping was stressful enough before Covid19, but it turns out there was a whole new level of pain to overcome.

The stress migraine had largely formed beforehand, with a letter from CMS informing me that they had reversed their original decision and were now ruling in Simon’s favour, judging Lily to no longer be in full time education, so he no longer had to pay maintenance for her. This after he sent false information to the Child Benefits office, telling them that Lily was not in full time education after being expelled from college, ignoring the fact that I was legally home-educating her while she was attending her new college part-time. Having finally won the EHCP we needed to get Lily extra support, she should have now been able to attend full time… except that college was now closed due to the Coronavirus crisis. I had successfully appealed the Child Benefits decision, largely due to the fact that Lily had previously been home educated age 5-8. If that hadn’t been the case, Simon might have been able to get away with it, despite having thrown Lily out and refusing to honour the “equal shared care” Child Arrangements Order that he’d insisted on obtaining. Of course, he’d then tried to use that Order to claim that he retained shared care and shouldn’t have to pay maintenance, but thankfully the CMS ruled against him. Some men will do anything to support their children… others will do anything to get out of paying child support.

With everywhere closed for the Easter Bank Holiday, it was impossible to get any further advice or take action until the following Tuesday, at which point it would be the familiar half hour wait to get through to CMS and explain they’d made their new decision based on false and misleading information. Which meant an entire Bank Holiday weekend of anxiety – would I have to wait 6 months on reduced maintenance in order to put my case to appeal, missing out on almost £2000 of payments? Would Simon have to pay this money back, or would he yet again get away with deliberately misleading the authorities?

Every time you fill in an official form, it makes it clear in BOLD CAPITAL LETTERS that deliberately sending false or misleading information is an offence and could result in a fine or even prison sentence. My experiences have shown this to be a lie. Simon has so far given false and misleading information to the Family Court (during 2 separate cases), CAFCASS, the police, Social Services, Child Maintenance Service (more times than I can count, but I think we’re onto 9 appeals now?) Child Benefits Agency and what would have been Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service had CMS not already reversed their decision. I’ve been left fighting false accusations and fire-fighting the consequences for six years, while the authorities do nothing to stop him. It’s exhausting and demoralising and has left me begging them to take action. The system simply doesn’t recognise the more insidious forms of domestic abuse and provides no protection. Abusers are able to exploit loopholes – for example the disgusting way that Child Benefit does not take into account the lack of educational provision for autistic teenagers at 16+. Or they refuse to follow court orders, knowing that without any jurisdiction for arrest, there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it unless you have enough money to take them back to court.

Having just fought a battle over student loan repayments, and then Child Benefit payments, all under the shadow of Covid19 and lockdown, I really don’t need yet another battle. I’ve been battling for six years now, I’ve had enough. Simon and Astrid have repeatedly taunted me that I need to “move on” and “get over it” – yet they’re the ones making it impossible for me to do so. “Move on” and “get over it” in this context seem to mean “We want to ignore the court orders, refuse to look after Lily, pay absolutely no child maintenance and continue to abuse you as much as we like, while you just shut up and take it.” Without recourse to Legal Aid to take him back to court – Legal Aid is only paid out for cases of domestic violence in which it can be proved that you have called the police for your own protection, or have been hospitalised or required medical treatment, likely on more than one occasion – there seems to be nothing I can do to make him stop. And as I’ve already discovered, Court is useless when you’re up against someone willing to lie about absolutely everything, and a Court Order is a waste of paper if it doesn’t come with power of arrest.

I got through my shopping while fighting back tears and counting my breaths to avoid panic attacks. I bought myself a large bar of chocolate as some kind of solace; I will emerge from lockdown looking as if a Beluga whale had miraculously learned how to walk. Arriving home, I asked the kids to help unload and pack away, while I collapsed on the sofa with a couple of paracetamol and an emergency glass of Coke, clutching an icepack to my forehead. Naturally they started squabbling, then Lily refused to do the washing up that she should have tackled hours earlier, saying she was “too busy.” Doing what? I wondered, but it turned out to be playing Fortnite. Simon does not have to deal with any of this, I reminded myself. Simon is not having to keep both of us children alive, fed, happy, entertained and educated during this pandemic. Simon has not even bothered to get in touch to see how the kids are doing. People try to make it better by saying “Oh well, he’s the one missing out,” especially as neither of the kids want to see him any more – but the truth is that the kids are missing out, whether that’s missing out on the money they should be entitled to, or missing out on having a mum who isn’t ill or irritable with stress, or missing out on having a loving and supportive father. It sucks, frankly.

Life goes on. Next day, with a headache still hovering around the edges, I find the appeals form online and fill it out, ready to send if I can’t convince the CMS to reverse their decision again on Tuesday. I have stopped taking this personally, I realise. Simon’s shenanigans are now nothing more than an administrative and financial hassle. I’m the one who has actually moved on, while he still lashes out vindictively. Meanwhile Lily miraculously does the washing up without me having to nag her. They both fight over the dodgy flavoured Super Noodles. Ivy tells me about her hamster-related dream and I tell her about mine, involving dating a mysterious violinist captured by gangsters who threatened to cut off his fingers. I sow a few seeds and water the garden, admiring the daffodils I planted in the Autumn. There will be pizza for dinner and an at-home Movie Night. We will get through this. We’ve already been in lockdown for the past six years, we’ve gotten good at surviving.

Home, parenting

Of lies and money

So. With money running out and less than a third of the child maintenance being paid, the phone calls to CMS began. For each call you make to CMS, you will be on hold for over 20 minutes, guaranteed; I figure it’s deliberate, in the hope that some callers will give up and go away. They told me that Simon would be sent a letter about the missing payments, and would have “until the end of next week” to respond. “The end of next week” became a moveable feast, being cited for over a month while Simon failed to respond and the money still didn’t arrive. The amount owed crept up over £1600, my anxiety levels soaring with it.

Then the excuses started. Simon had apparently told the CMS in a phone call that he was no longer earning as much money. It says a lot that even now, I was prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt – perhaps he’d been made redundant, or had deliberately reduced his hours in order to free up more time for DIY on his new house. I stressed about what that might mean for us, what our payments would be reduced to, how we would manage. Yet the quiet voice of reason whispered in the back of my mind that if he was genuinely earning less money, the very first thing he would have done would be to contact CMS to reduce his payments. When I checked with CMS a month later, Simon hadn’t even put in an application to reduce his payments, never mind sent in proof – clearly this was another lie.

Next, a letter from CMS stating that they’d “been informed” that Lily was no longer in full time education and could I confirm this or send proof? Otherwise payments would be reduced. I called to let them know that Lily was attending a BTEC course which was classed as full-time. I knew immediately what must have happened; Simon had turned up in our new town the weekend before, taken Lily to dinner and asked her about her course. On finding out that she “only” attended three days a week, he’d assumed that this couldn’t possibly count as full time, and called the CMS to have his payments reduced. As he has no responsibility for the day-to-day lives of our children, he either didn’t realise that the BTEC still counted as full time, or he knew but didn’t care. It’s frustrating that instead of being happy for Lily, who is loving her music course, he’s tried to use her course as an excuse to pay less maintenance, turning it against her.

Normal reaction; I’m so glad you’re enjoying your course. Do you need anything else for it, any textbooks etc?

Abusive father; Tell me more about your course so I can try and use it against you.

Simon had not asked for our new address, nor had I offered it. Lily had talked to him only in terms of the nearest city, making sure not to give him the precise area. Yet he turned up here with Astrid, insisting to Lily that he meet her in our actual town, having managed to find out where we live without being told. It felt sickening, and took away the security that Ivy and I had been feeling, it’s all mind games and intimidation – see, we can find out where you live! But no doubt if you talked to him, he would still insist that I was the one stalking him… He spent less than 3 hours with Lily, but treated the occasion as a weekend away with Astrid, spending two nights in a hotel, meals out etc, while still claiming that he couldn’t afford to pay child maintenance.

Last week another call from CMS; now Simon was claiming that he retained shared care of Lily and had a court order to prove it. The court order was a 2017 relic from Simon trying to force Ivy into reinstating contact (and therefore not having to pay maintenance for her.) While I had been so careful to word the document in such a way as to make sure Ivy wouldn’t be forced into anything, it didn’t occur to me that I should ensure that Lily had a similar, flexible opt-out clause. In the Family Court you evidently need a fortune teller as much as a lawyer. Even though it was Simon’s choice to deviate from the court order, and Simon who had originally informed the CMS of his decision, he was now trying to claim that he had equal shared care of Lily.

At times I agonise over how this must seem to Lily. If it wasn’t bad enough that Simon effectively threw her out with a week’s notice, after having spent 10 months in court battling to force contact with Ivy. If it wasn’t bad enough that he dumped all of her belongings on the street outside her house, including even her bedlinen, making it clear she was no longer welcome. If it wasn’t bad enough that Simon then made Lily tell Ivy that he was happy for Ivy to move back in with him if she didn’t want to relocate – yet never made an offer for Lily to move back in… Now he was claiming she still lived with him for half the time, so that he could stop paying for her. To throw her out and then claim she was still there?

Even though Simon’s claims were ludicrous and outright lies, there is always the fear lingering beneath. What if they actually believe him? What if he’s managed to find a loophole and they have to uphold his claim, even though he’s not adhering to the court order? It’s no wonder I have an anxiety disorder, it’s been my constant companion these past five years. I waited over a week for the official letter to arrive to find out what the precise arguments were that Simon was using so that I’d know how to word my response, but when the letter finally got here it contained no information. Yet another call to CMS, another 20 minutes on hold.

“Yes, we get calls about this a lot,” the woman explained. “Unfortunately the letters are generated by the system, so they don’t have much information.” Then why don’t you change the letters? I wondered, given that it would save everybody more time if they just took five minutes to add a few details before sending it. If I hadn’t been told on an earlier call, I would have received the letter but have no idea what Simon was claiming. But yes, despite the fact that he saw Lily for 2 hours a month on average, and she hadn’t stayed overnight with him for almost 2 years, he was claiming that he retained equal shared care of her. Half term was rapidly approaching but with no invite for Lily to go and stay with him. It’s still difficult to believe that he could be making such an outrageous claim, that his lies have become this bold. It’s even harder to try and understand how he could do this while still apparently claiming that he is the innocent victim in all of this. But because he’s got away with it so far; lying to his solicitor, to his lawyer, to the judge, to social services, to school, to CAFCASS, to the police, never mind to me and the children, and no one has stopped it, he’s become further empowered. Because there has been no consequence for his lies, they’ve got worse.

“If you’re looking at my case on screen, you should be able to see that he gave you false information before,” I tell the woman. “He gave you false information in 2018 when he claimed that he retained equal care of Ivy, and you found in my favour. He’s given you false information this month, claiming he was earning less money, claiming that Lily was no longer in full time education. He’s lying now about this, Lily lives with me full time, he hardly sees her. It says on the letters you send out that if we send you false or misleading information then you’ll take further action, so I’m begging you, please take action. Because otherwise he’s going to keep doing this because there’s no consequence and it’s getting worse and worse. You’re failing to protect me and the kids, you’re allowing abuse to continue.”

Generally the staff at the CMS are very friendly and helpful, even if they have to stick to a fairly limited script. “I understand where you’re coming from,” is about as far as they’re allowed to go, rather than “Yes, we understand that he’s being a total bastard about this.” They have the power to take people to court, to seize driving licenses, to take payments directly from wages (although unbelievably, the receiving parent effectively pays a fine for this, losing 4% of the ongoing payments, even though it’s only possible to switch to direct collection if it’s been proven that the paying parent has been failing to pay.) Yet over £2 billion is owed in unpaid arrears, the vast majority of it owed by fathers to mothers. Because Simon paid up his arrears a couple of days before the deadline, the CMS wouldn’t switch our payments over to the Direct Collection service. The stress and anxiety he’d caused me simply don’t have a cost, nor would he be liable for any fines I’d accrued if I’d gone overdrawn or defaulted on a payment due to him not paying. What remains unsaid is the cost of all these lies, the fresh pain and confusion each lie causes; How can he do this to us? Do the kids mean nothing to him?

The realisation that it’s not over brings me crashing down again. That the abuse is set to continue, no matter what I do to free myself of it. That by taking the ultimate action in trying to free myself – relocating – all I’ve done is trigger a fresh cycle. Yet again the confusion over why is he doing this, how can he possibly think that this is okay? Part of the abuse endured several years of Simon and Astrid telling me to Get over it and to Move on – but it seems that they’re the ones who aren’t prepared to let me go.