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?

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.

A Year to Heal, Home, parenting

A fresh start

Despite the challenges of moving from the House in the Sky to the Tiny Terrace, I clung to the belief that it was a fresh start. With the divorce and court over, I could take as long as I needed to settle in and rebuild my life, create a new home for my kids. However the abuse didn’t stop; now that Simon was openly living with his new partner it ranked up a level, resulting in our youngest deciding she didn’t want to see him any more. Cue another court case as he attempted to force Ivy into maintaining contact, at which point it became clear that he would stop at nothing to destroy me.

The fresh start disappeared under the burden of legal documents, reports and lies that I was left defending myself against. Rather than creating a new home, I was struggling to survive. Boxes remained unpacked, furniture that didn’t fit up the narrow stairs stood mouldering outside on the patio. When I look back, I’m amazed I managed to get anything done at all, never mind setting up a home! After almost ten months of legal battles, it became clear that Simon was not going to get his way; Ivy could not be forced into seeing him. A month later, he kicked Lily out with only a week’s notice, insisting she came to live with me full time, her belongings dumped on the street outside our house.

The Tiny Terrace had never been intended for the three of us to live full time in. Less than half the size of the House in the Sky, no parking, and not on the school bus route; these were manageable compromises when I bought it in the belief that the kids would only be there for half of the time. It was the only property I’d seen that was remotely suitable while Simon was ramping up the pressure to get us out of the family home. One year on, that compromise had been stretched to its limits.

Single-parenting is hard, even harder when you’re living in fear that everything you do is being judged. Everything was on me, all of the time, spinning all of the plates single-handedly with the added fear that Simon would exact some form of overblown retribution if I stumbled. My own life had ceased to exist, I no longer worked nor socialised. I didn’t go out without the children, I lost touch with nearly all of my friends. When my own mental health challenges became unbearable, it was clear that things needed to change; move now, or stay put for at least another two years until Ivy had finished her GCSEs, knowing that our struggles were set to continue. It was time to move, and this time I would make sure that it really was a fresh start for all of us.

Although we would be bringing some of our challenges with us – autism doesn’t go away – by relocating we’d be leaving some of our problems behind. No more panic attacks in the supermarket, scared that I’d bump into Simon or Astrid. Being able to attend local events without anxiously scanning the crowd. Simon not knowing our new address meant he couldn’t spy on my home. There were positives too; a school for Ivy that had better pastoral care and was within walking distance. The chance for Lily to attend her dream college course. My family within an hour’s drive. Hopefully the fresh start would also give me the chance to not so much rebuild but create a new life for myself and begin to put the past behind me. It felt like the end of a long struggle, and I was certain that the abuse would be consigned to history, there was simply nothing else that Simon could do to me now.

Or so I thought.

Money was tight, especially as we squeezed in a last minute holiday before the move, our first in years and an important symbol marking the end of one way of life, the start of another. I overstretched myself as the first house fell through, and ended up having to borrow money from my parents to pay the removals firm. I started keeping a money diary, but as I was in the process of switching banks it was more difficult to keep track of my finances; all I knew was that there wasn’t enough money in my account and I blamed myself for overspending. However, the new banking app on my phone soon revealed the issue – Simon had not been paying the full amount of maintenance. When the statements from my old bank arrived, it showed he owed me over £1500 – no wonder I’d been struggling. The next payment date rolled around, and less than half of the set amount was paid. Simon had evidently decided to pay what he saw fit, rather than the legally-mandated figure.

Financial abuse is one of the earliest markers of domestic abuse, and withholding child maintenance falls into this category. It’s no coincidence that this happened just as I moved away from Simon – this was retaliation, an attempt to regain the control that he had lost. For the victim, it creates constant anxiety and a high level of stress – money is an inescapable reality. It has meant having to constantly check my bank balance, buying only the bare minimum, putting off the purchases that we need for the new house. Each time that I fretted over money, Simon was forefront in my mind as a constant, intrusive thought. Of course, there was no warning that the money wouldn’t be paid into my account, no time to readjust or budget for the difference. “Sorry, my ex hasn’t paid the child maintenance” isn’t an excuse that goes down well with utility companies or the supermarket cashier. If I was overdrawn, I would have to pay charges, even though it was Simon’s fault – even if I managed to get him to pay the arrears, there wouldn’t be any financial penalty for him, no compensation for the difficulties or fines that he had caused. To have this happen right when my expenditure was necessarily at its greatest – moving house – was cynical and deliberate. Depressingly, our fresh start rapidly deteriorated into more of the same.

Simon doesn’t know how much money I have coming in or going out, what financial commitments I have, whether I’ll be plunged into debt without that money. He seems not to care about the impact it has on our children, from missing out on opportunities, school trips, clubs etc. to struggling to cover the cost of the basics such as clothes, transport to school and college, even what food we eat, as well as the kids worrying about money and feeling stressed. Such issues are the permanent price of poverty; what’s frustrating is when you are plunged into poverty purely because your ex is deliberately not fulfilling his legal obligations to his children. Getting a job isn’t so easy for a single mother with a large career gap and a kid with special needs – Lily had an epileptic seizure at college last week, necessitating a panicked 90 minute drive to get to her, then a three hour stint in A&E, not something that fits in well with a 9-5 job.

The hidden cost of financial abuse is the impact it has on your ability to parent – the children have a mother who is constantly anxious and stressed rather than happy and fully present with them. The fresh start we’d hoped for, the chance to make sure that the last years of their childhood were happy, has been sabotaged yet again by Simon’s abuse. By attempting to punish and control me, he’s hurt his children. And that for me is the most painful part, having to accept that the love he once had for his kids has been suffocated by the hate he now holds for me. It’s hard to reconcile the husband and father he once was to the monster he has become. Financially I’m losing out – but ultimately, he has lost so much more.