I’ve been following this story on and off since I first heard of it earlier this year (not from when it broke about a year ago), but someone Facebooked it a couple of weeks back, reproducing the year-old stories and nothing more recent. A couple from Fife (eastern Scotland) had their wedding cancelled because local social services deemed the bride, who was 17 and has mild learning disabilities (although some of her problems may have been to do with missing school for surgery on a cleft palate, and she claims that the teaching she received was inadequate), insufficiently intelligent to understand what marriage meant; they also threatened to take her baby into care at birth. I don’t know if they actually used the words dim or stupid, but that’s what the papers say they called her. The couple fled to Ireland at the last minute where a benefactor provided them with a house in County Waterford, but Irish social workers became aware of Fife’s concern about Kerry Robertson’s (now Kerry McDougal’s) alleged disability, and took the child into care a few days after his birth. However, they subsequently allowed Kerry to look after the child (named Ben) in a supervised residential centre, but most recently, they have been allowed to get married and live together as a family, without any supervision.
Most of the stories are from the Daily Mail and from other tabloids, with the broadsheets being reluctant to get on board (although the Telegraph has had some coverage of the issue of forced adoption), but nothing from any of them since last November. Mark McDougall, the husband, is particularly scathing about the Guardian on his blog, alleging that they won’t touch the issue of abusive care orders and adoptions because they rely on advertising from numerous social service departments (they do, in fact, carry a huge amount of local authority advertising), although local and community papers such as The Voice (a London-based Black newspaper) carry an awful lot too, including adoption ads for specific children. I have to say, having been reading the Guardian since I was at school, I find their coverage of politics and economics the most balanced of all the British newspapers, but they do have their biases and blind spots. Some of my friends who have M.E. are particularly irritated at their slant on that matter; they ran a lengthy article last May (for M.E. Awareness Week), but presented recent debates over XMRV as being between desperate patients and conspiracy theorists clinging to the XMRV theory for dear life and the likes of Simon Wessely who dismiss it, when it’s much more complicated than that.
Still, the facts as presented do raise an awful lot of concern. Kerry supposedly had mild learning difficulties, but despite having worked successfully as a childcare assistant at a local school, social workers deemed her unfit to look after her own child. They also seemed to be treating the case as if it consisted of a lone parent with intellectual disabilities, not as a committed couple in which only one party had any impairment. When they arrived in Ireland and Kerry gave birth, social services removed the baby and reunited only Kerry with Ben two weeks later, expecting her to prove herself to them on her own, rather than as she would be living, with her partner. Of course, there would be times when she would be left alone with the baby, but these would not be all the time when her husband was not around, as she would likely have friends with their own babies who would be able to give her some support. Those who have met Kerry say that, while she may not be “academically gifted”, she is not noticeably impaired. Her husband says he finds some aspects of her personality, such as her tendency to see things in black and white, endearing and admits that she does need help with Ben, but “it doesn’t mean she should have the right to be a mum taken away from her”, and Kerry says she does most of the caring.
The whole story is worrying for anyone with any learning disability, including anything on the autistic spectrum, seeking to have or keep a child — even, it seems, with a non-impaired partner. The attitude persists in other countries, particularly when the parents are poor or of an ethnic minority as well as disabled: I have heard of an incident in the USA where a Black blind couple were threatened with having their children removed because the local social services (or whatever they are called there) believed they were incapable of caring for a child themselves. Of course, many white, middle-class blind parents do precisely this every day; some of the couples have one and others two blind members. I remember the story of Julia Kimbell, the deaf-blind mother from Peterborough in England, who became a single parent and social services insisted that she have an assistant on hand, as (among other things) she would not know when the child was crying or was crawling somewhere dangerous. However, when she married, the need for assistance was deemed to be over.
I’m not sure if the McDougalls were supported by their family, as it’s never mentioned, but the papers did refer to their friends, although that could mean all sorts of things when it appears in a paper like the Mail. But sometimes, the family turns against the disabled member and makes decisions on their behalf without thinking to involve them. I read a blog article by a blind, autistic woman named Astrid, who currently resides in a psychiatric hospital in the Netherlands, in which she said that her family had discussed behind her back what they would do if she got pregnant and decided that the sister would adopt the child. The sister had the effrontery to tell her “so don’t get pregnant” because she was a student and would not want to have the child now. In any case, Astrid had already decided that she wasn’t cut out to be a parent, but took exception to others making decisions about her body and her possible children without talking to her. My old friend Ginny, who is also blind, once noted in her blog that some of her relatives had suggested that she should not have any children because of her disability.
Coming back to social services in the UK and the McDougalls, one might ask whether the social services were really acting in Ben’s best interests or simply to cover their own backs, or whether some kind of prejudice against Kerry’s background or the relationship itself (besides Kerry’s supposed disability, she was 17 at the time of the original planned wedding while Mark was 25). One press report from last January has Stephen Moore, executive director of social work at Fife Council, saying, “I would urge Kerry to use all the support that is being made available to her and her baby and to get appropriate help should she need it”. If his own social workers had made Kerry feel supported rather than intimidated, and suggested that they might use a bit of help rather than simply telling her that her baby would be taken at birth, they would not have had to leave their home town to begin with. There should be an investigation as to why a demonstrably competent couple were so intimidated by his staff that they had to flee the country.
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