Don’t Take My Baby is an hour-long BBC drama, broadcast on BBC Three (which is likely to be removed from digital TV and only shown online as of next year, something one review says this programme helps make the case against) as part of a series of programmes titled Defying the Label, challenging popular stereotypes about disability. It tells the story of Anna, a wheelchair user with a muscle-wasting condition, and Tom, a man with a hereditary visual impairment that gets worse as the programme goes on. Anna and Tom have a baby, Danielle (Dani), who becomes the subject of a “child in need investigation” in which Anna (played by Ruth Madeley, who is a wheelchair user, albeit with spina bifida rather than muscular dystrophy) and Tom have to prove that they are fit parents before they are even allowed to take Dani home. The couple’s relationships with their parents, who clearly disapprove of their relationship and their decision to have the child, is explored and they have some rows, but eventually work through their difficulties and their fears. Eventually the couple are allowed to keep Dani.
I must say that when I first heard about the premise of the programme, I was a bit disturbed and wondered if this still went on. I was well aware of couples where there is a history of mental illness or a learning disability, even when the former is well in the past or the latter is mild, having their children threatened or even taken away and adopted, but was unaware that this was still going on when it came to otherwise competent, physically disabled parents. (Disability is sometimes used in custody disputes, particularly in the USA — the case of Kaney O’Neill in 2009 [see earlier entry] and the ongoing case of Jessie Lorenz and her daughter are examples — and even though the argument that a parent is less than ideal because of disability is rejected often, it keeps coming back.) The programme is said to be inspired by real stories, which would suggest that the characters are composites, but the scriptwriter, in his BBC blog, says that the story is loosely based on a real couple’s story. The follow-up notes at the end of the programme, saying that Dani had inherited Tom’s condition but not Anna’s and that Anna’s life expectancy remained uncertain, only added to the confusion.
The programme often left me confused as to the time frames involved. It was not clear, for example, how many days elapsed between Dani’s Caeasarian birth and Anna’s discharge — I would have thought it would have taken a few days, given that it was a high-risk birth and that if it was not guaranteed that Anna would survive the birth, there could have been complications. Those few days would have been an ideal time to make sure she and Tom were able to manage, and do any assessments, rather than discharging Anna without Dani. I’m well aware that people are discharged from hospital early a lot of the time, whether after childbirth or surgery, often resulting in readmission, but discharging someone at such high risk this early in these circumstances seems like a pointlessly high risk to me. I also wondered why the question of breast-feeding was never even raised — they didn’t, they were never encouraged to breast-feed or even for Anna to express milk, and it was never discussed why this was. While women with high-level spinal cord injuries who bear children often cannot breast-feed after a few months, Anna did not have a SCI. And on that subject, when Tom asked her how much of ‘that’ she could feel (after they had sex early on in their relationship), Anna said she could feel all of it but did not explain that her impairment was not an SCI — a common assumption of healthy-looking young people in wheelchairs which Anna would likely have encountered. Neither of these things altered the course of the story, but they seemed like curious omissions to me.
Tom is understandably hostile to the social workers and regards their intervention as an insult. At one point a support worker turns up and makes them watch a video explaining how to cook, something they already knew very well how to do. However, after bathing Dani in the family centre (which he did quite competently, with Anna and the social worker, Belinda, watching), he slipped on a wet floor and fell backwards with Dani in his arms. Dani is uninjured, but he panics and accuses the social workers of wetting the floor deliberately so as to make him look bad. Despite this, after a few wordless scenes of Belinda having a pained phone conversation in her car, the next day (or at least, in the next scene at Anna and Tom’s house), Tom is told that they can bring Dani home as they are moving the assessment to their house. We do not find out why this decision is made so quickly after the bath incident which clearly unnerves Belinda.
After Dani goes home, although the couple are clearly overjoyed, they find it extremely difficult. Caring for Dani takes up all their time and Tom soon complains that he is doing all the work while Anna does nothing other than hold her. The floor gets cluttered as a result, and at one point Tom falls over and hits his head just as the social worker turns up for one of her unannounced visits (several of which they delay answering or entirely refuse). Three of their parents (Anna’s mother left when Anna was young, not long after her diagnosis) come to dinner and Tom casts aspersions on Anna’s mother’s support and asks why she was not at the birth and did not come for weeks afterwards; the mother responded that she feared Anna would die and did not want to meet the baby who might kill her. It comes to a head when Anna demands that Tom bathe her as she has not been bathed for days, and smells; when Tom refuses, insisting he has had a long day and wants a beer, Anna throws herself off the chair and onto the floor. Tom tells her he already has one baby to look after and does not need another. He ends up walking out and walking to the social services offices, where he meets Belinda coming out, and pours his heart out to her before saying he does not want her help, he just wants to be left alone to be a Dad. However, after this, the two settle their differences and admit that they are both afraid of what the future might bring for both them and Dani.
Towards the end, the couple go to the social work offices to address the panel which will decide if Dani can stay with them or not. When Belinda comes to tell them that they are ready for them, Tom takes out a folding white cane and uses it to navigate his way to the room, the first we learn that his sight impediment has got worse (he has not used a cane before) and something that is not remarked on. The two make an emotional appeal and Tom in particular stresses that his love and commitment should not have been in question, as he had gone into a relationship with a girl that “he sometimes had to help to shit” and that other parents who had faults, including his and Anna’s, and quite possibly the members of the team, did not have to prove themselves. He also said he was willing to accept more help parenting.
They then left, the panel continuing their deliberations without them. Belinda and the male social worker stressed that the two were competent, had accepted more help and had parented their daughter for four months without incident, but a third person, a woman we had not previously seen, said she was “not convinced” as they had failed to answer visits on more than one occasion, that Dani was likely to have to care for Anna if she even lived that long, and that she had previously had to remove a daughter from a disabled mother because she was living in absolute squalor. The fact that these arguments have been thrown out of court in cases in the past when social workers attempted to remove children from single parents far more disabled than Tom and Anna was not pointed out.) However, the panel decide to ‘downgrade’ Dani, which when Belinda breaks the news makes Tom furious and he threatens to sue them; it actually means that they have decided she is not at risk.
The programme left me wondering how common the scenario facing Tom and Anna is for disabled parents. Does this happen everywhere, or do different children’s services departments in different areas have different approaches? If it is common for loving, stable couples to be treated as if under suspicion and presumed incompetent until they prove otherwise, then this really is a scandal as I’m sure it would result in a proportion of such couples losing children to adoption; however, I am aware that some departments have a more relaxed and confident attitude towards even learning disabled parents, as was seen in the case of Steve and Tricia McHale, featured in One Born Every Minute in 2012, where social workers saw no danger despite Tricia’s worries (see earlier entry). That this happens to parents with learning difficulties and mental health issues is already well-known; that parents with purely physical impairments are being threatened in this way as well is not. If it is, the public should know about it, and there should be some anger, and a lot of debate. The question is, is there?
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