Sticking up for Katie

Katie has an emotional disorder and needs special attention in school. But her father, Jason Andrews, found that he was hitting a brick wall when he sought help. Here he tells his story of his long fight with bureaucracy. And how he had eventually to resort to legal action for his requests to be taken seriously
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The Independent Online

Katie is undeniably cute ­ an attractive seven-year-old with puppy-brown eyes, an infectious giggle and a sense of humour that almost redeems all manner of obduracy. She's a delight for much of the time but occasionally she disappears into a hellish black hole where no one can reach her.

After our second meeting in her foster home, Katie, then aged three, wrapped herself round my wife's legs screaming repeatedly: "I want to go home with you! Take me with you!"

Her carers prised her off and we retreated to our car fighting back tears. Katie was still screaming for us to rescue her. When Katie came into our care a year before we adopted her she could have walked in straight off the set of Oliver Twist with grubby face, dark hair cut short and wearing hand-me-downs that had seen better days. She was a terrified child who had had several placements in a couple of years, some lasting just weeks. During her first year with us she wet herself several times a day and once smeared faeces on the wall. If she heard raised voices she put her hands over her head protectively.

Katie was born prematurely and with so much cocaine and heroin in her bloodstream that she had to be weaned off. She spent her early life in an environment in which drugs, inappropriate sexual activity and violence were the norm.

She was often left for days at a time without food during which time her older sister, whom we also adopted, fended for her. A psychological assessment determined that Katie had an attachment disorder, a condition in which individuals have difficulty forming loving, lasting, intimate relationships. Symptoms in her case included compulsive lying, an extreme need to control her environment and problems relating to other children.

Shortly after joining reception year at primary school we had to put her back into nursery because she suffered severe anxiety: cut lumps off her hair, hid in corners, put scissors near her eyes and coloured her tongue with felt pens until there was no sign of its natural colour. Her teachers could not watch her all the time ­ they had 29 other children to look after.

During Year 1, Katie struggled to pick up the basic building blocks for reading so I made a formal request to the local education authority (LEA) to assess her with a view to providing her with a Statement under Section 323 of the 1996 Education Act so she would get extra help.

Before a Statement can be granted the LEA has to first rule whether the facts of the case warrant an assessment. So I provided a detailed dossier, including reports from one of the country's top child psychologists and historical documents from social services, but the LEA rejected our application on a technicality.

It said it was unable to determine whether the school had placed Katie on School Action and School Action Plus, a new set of procedures that teachers were required to follow before a child could be considered for Statementing.

The LEA had made no attempt to determine from the school whether it had implemented these procedures. One official said it was not their responsibility to chase the school for missing information.

But the school Special Needs Co-ordinators (SENCos) said School Action and School Action Plus were so new that as far as they understood, they did not have to be implemented for another month.

I was left with the impression that the LEA was looking for any excuse to avoid granting a Statement. Several SENCos in the borough alleged the LEA's new children's officer had put a blanket ban on all new Statements because of a funding crisis which the Education secretary, Charles Clarke, admitted earlier this month had arisen because of a government "mistake".

I studied the 217-page Special Educational Needs Code of Practice and, when I got to page 80, I found a clause that allowed for exceptional provision for "children who may need immediate referral for statutory assessment" in cases of severe emotional or behavioural difficulties.

I had found the gem I could use to argue the LEA had breached the Code of Practice and I was also able to argue, with the help of Katie's teachers, that the school had fulfilled the spirit of School Action and School Action Plus even if it had not formalised it as such.

The LEA agreed to give Katie a Statutory Assessment and earlier this year it awarded her a Statement. It was inadequate and I successfully argued for it to be increased to nearly 20 hours of extra in-class help weekly.

But the school refused to implement the Statement saying it was one of the "losers" under the new funding formula and it was a simple choice between making teachers redundant or recruiting staff to help Katie and other special needs children.

Katie was caught in a vicious circle. The school said the LEA had not provided it with the funds to implement Statements; the LEA blamed the Department for Education and Skills and the Department of Education and Skills blamed the LEA for holding back money.

My fight for Katie became full-time. I wrote to anyone I thought might be able to help and hounded LEA officials so that they knew I was not going to go away.

I was eating, breathing and living the fight to get my child the help she needed with letters and phone calls to MPs and councillors, and placing unattributable stories in the local press.

A sense of the need for justice for this little girl who had been so badly abused and neglected was what drove me. No one had ever fought Katie's corner. But now she had me ­ her dad and her hero ­ and I was not going to let her down.

The LEA's chief education officer at one point told me she would contact the head teacher of the school and go through the budget line by line and that as a last resort she would threaten to remove all funding from the school unless it complied with
the Statement.

I felt she was deliberately trying to make trouble between me and the school when I genuinely believed it was the LEA at fault.

The school and LEA met several times and at various stages there were commitments to implement some of the hours stipulated by the Statement but any provision given was woefully inadequate and did not comply with their legal obligation.

Katie continued to deteriorate. She gouged her cuticles, scratched her face in her sleep and stole from her teachers and fellow pupils. Once we turned up at her school to find her climbing on a high wall in the playground with no supervision. One false step and she would have cracked open her head.

My strained relationship with the LEA's chief education officer deteriorated when she told me to stop threatening her. I had not done anything of the kind but had pointed out that her inaction had left me with no option but to go to the High Court.

I hired a specialist City-based firm of solicitors who got the ball rolling for a judicial review at the High Court with the LEA named as the defendant. Inclusion of the school in the action as well would have been a last resort and was something we wanted to avoid at all cost because we needed it on-side. I was exhausted, emotional, frightened for my daughter's future and outraged at an education system that seemed to put finance before the welfare of genuinely needy children. To me, it was a clear-cut case that Katie could get help and swim or be denied it and drown.

The intervention of solicitors got things moving. This June, the school sent a letter confirming Katie would receive all but about an hour of the provision specified in the Statement. It undertook to try to cover break times and put in the remaining support if and when it received extra funding.

The LEA notified the High Court just before our application for a judicial review was received so the application was denied. But that did not matter. The intervention of solicitors had done the trick and galvanised the school, under pressure from the LEA, to implement the Statement from the new school year.

When I picked Katie up from school on the first day of the new school year she ran out of the classroom and threw her arms around me in the most glorious hug, her face beaming. I found myself wondering about all the other children affected by the funding crisis who had no one to champion them. But at least I won for Katie and that would do me just fine.

Jason Andrews is a pseudonym. His daughter's name has been changed to protect her identity