Saturday, 31 January 2015

The Charlie Dilemma: Saving a Friendship vs Saving a Child

Imagine that you have a friend, named Marie. And Marie has two young boys – Charlie (11) and Peter (7).

Marie has a number of personality defects that are difficult to manage; she is extremely loud and attention-seeking, prone to creating unnecessary drama in order to draw attention to herself, unwilling to engage with reality to the point of being delusional and a well known compulsive liar. She has lost an untold number of friends due to her difficult and demanding personality, but you have stuck beside her and turned a blind eye to these failings, while still maintaining awareness that everything she tells you may not be completely the truth.

Charlie, Marie’s firstborn child, is a quiet but pleasant child and his introverted personality is blamed on a number of complications surrounding his birth, although the details of these complications change each time Marie recounts the story of his birth. Marie frequently tells people that Charlie was ‘brain damaged’ during labour and ‘he can’t help the way that he is’, although spending time with Marie and Charlie suggests that there are other factors that might be to blame.

Marie was unsure how to care for Charlie when he was a baby and at one point he was rushed into hospital as an emergency case. Social workers criticised her level of care, but she was allowed to continue caring for him. Marie kept Charlie unnaturally close to her and treated him like a doll, not allowing him to socialise with other children, sitting him inches away from the TV in his baby chair all day, rarely engaging with him and having no interest whatsoever in his educational development. At the age of five he was unable to speak and would 'babble' a combination of grunts, noises and baby words in order to communicate. Marie blamed Charlie's slow development on a number of factors - his traumatic birth, brain defects (‘he has half a brain’) and various allergies and phobias - but time after time she would ignore him for hours on end and he would stand inches in front of the TV or sit at the computer for hours (the TV screen was covered with his handprints). He would feed himself on crisps and yoghurt, constantly complain that he was hungry and on the odd occasion that a meal was prepared for him he appeared to live on a diet of supernoodles and pizza.

As he grew older, Marie revelled in the fact that he was completely dependent on her and she would tell people – often in his presence – that he was 'disabled', incapable of the most basic functions and he couldn’t possibly leave the house, walk anywhere, socialise with other children etc, while friends and family knew full well that Charlie was completely capable of these things and he was a very bright, physically able boy who was interested in learning about the world around him (when the family went on holiday with Charlie's uncle, the uncle became so concerned about how Charlie was treated by Marie that he questioned Marie's ability to be a mother and raised the matter with Charlie's father, which resulted in an argument and the holiday being cut short). Marie would encourage people to buy toys for Charlie rather than educational presents such as books as he ‘couldn’t cope with them’ and at one point she attacked the school for buying him a maths set. She claimed that he was unable to fly or travel on public transport because his muscles hadn't developed properly and they had thrown his knee joints out, but he walked and ran around like a normal boy, took the bus very happily on numerous occasions and the family regularly enjoyed holidays abroad. She would revel in the attention that Charlie's 'disabilities' bought her from strangers, to the extent that she would regularly lament about his problems to strangers when out in public and she would tell people that he has non-existent special arrangements made for his care at home, such as light and stimulation rooms. The impression that she gave to strangers in the street was that Charlie was a heavily disabled child in a non-responsive and vegetative state.

Interestingly, Marie spent a few years working in a school for children with severe physical and learning disabilities and she grew close to one child in particular. She had photos of the child - who was clearly severely disabled and in a wheelchair - around her house and she would tell me how people would flock to him and his mother and offer their help and support. He was clearly a popular little boy and when he died there was an outpouring of grief from everyone who knew him. When listening to Marie talking about Charlie, it felt as though she was describing this child rather than Charlie.

Now, imagine you had this friend. How would you explain her behaviour? Would it make any difference if I told you that Marie  was claiming benefits for Charlie which meant that she didn’t have to work full-time and she was given an annual £500 holiday allowance (plus cash sums for garden toys etc) for Charlie? And she enrolled him at a 'special school', which provided door-to-door transport for him so that she didn’t have to take him to school in the mornings? And every morning she would deposit Charlie at a neighbour's house - or anyone who was at home
nearby - so that the transport could collect him while she left for her part-time job at - most distressingly - a local nursery?

The most upsetting aspect of this story is that as Charlie is growing older he is starting to show signs of emerging from his cage - his speech has improved to the point that is possible to have a conversation with him and he is showing an interest in his education - but his behaviour is becoming increasingly odd. He talks to himself all the time, he exhibits repetitive and obsessive behaviour and the subjects that he talks about are very bizarre. He still sits in front of YouTube all day long, barely eats and doesn't go outside or socialise with other children, but Marie is aware that he is maturing rapidly and she will soon lose the ability to convince him and others that he is 'disabled' - and she will therefore lose all the benefits that she enjoys as a result - so she is fiercely thwarting any attempt that he makes to normalise. She is currently making the case for Charlie to move up to a senior 'special school' where the travel arrangements and special attention will continue (even though his father believes that it would do him the world of good to go to the local senior school and mix with the 'normal children') and she is even turning her attention to his younger brother Peter as a potential replacement, who she is having tested for all kinds of problems ranging from dyslexia to sight problems and investigating the systems and benefits that are available to help him.

Marie's desire to continue enjoying the transport arrangements that give her stress-free mornings, the cash benefits that fund shopping trips and - her favourite and often lauded benefit - the financial cushion to work a handful of hours each week in a local nursery and spend the remainder of her time sitting on the sofa and watching TV, means that she is more than happy to hamper the development of her own child and continue to obstruct it for as long as possible. But it is not only the treatment of her own child that could be suffering - Marie has worked with children for a long time and she continues to work as a deputy manager at a local nursery, where she laments the 'paperwork and red tape' and encourages 'free play' as much as possible. One one occasion a parent made a complaint because they arrived early to find the children sat in front of a TV...

Now, imagine you had this friend. Could you live with yourself, knowing that this was happening? Would you save poor Charlie? Or would you save your friendship and continue to turn a blind eye?

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