How parents driven to suicide pact felt they failed daughter

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The Independent Online

No one could accuse Bill and Wendy Ainscow of failing to highlight the difficulties of raising a child with profound autistic problems.

No one could accuse Bill and Wendy Ainscow of failing to highlight the difficulties of raising a child with profound autistic problems.

Mr Ainscow, a sub-postmaster from Wirral, Merseyside, received a 15-month jail sentence in January 2003 after admitting to stealing £50,000 of benefits books to pay for the wild spending sprees that were a characteristic of his daughter's Asperger's syndrome.

While in prison (where he served three months before the Court of Appeal ordered his release on compassionate grounds) he said his daughter, Lisa, had "the wrong kind of mental health condition" to get help. "The doctors cannot section her and the police cannot do anything unless she commits a crime," he said.

The Ainscows engaged their MP, approached their local newspaper and initiated a complaint against an NHS Trust that discharged Lisa from its care.

But there seemed to be no progress. So the Ainscows purchased one-way flights to Tenerife, slept on the beach at the Los Cristianos resort for three nights, wrote a last letter to the Liverpool Daily Post, swallowed sleeping pills and swam out to sea in an attempt to drown.

Mr Ainscow, 73, succeeded. However, his wife, 64, a supply teacher, was saved by a lifeboat crew and taken to hospital in Santa Cruz, Tenerife's capital. Last night, the consulate described her as "severely shocked but making good progress" after being told of her husband's death.

The Ainscows' last letter was postmarked 3 November, the day before the suicide pact, and reached Liverpool this week.

Lisa Ainscow, 33, said this week how intent on death her parents were, and said they had invited her to join their suicide pact. "Mum said I had nothing going for me and no future. She said, if I didn't kill myself, nobody would help me, I could be on the streets, begging."

The Ainscows have struggled since their daughter's teenage years to find help for her condition, characterised by marked deficiencies in social skills - specifically, obsessive routines and a preoccupation with one particular subject.

Miss Ainscow became anxious and prone to mood swings as a teenager, when only trips to the cinema and new pairs of shoes would mollify her.

Her complex obsessions also included writing to public figures, including Tony Blair, the Prince of Wales and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Formal diagnosis helped, but her refusal to accept it left the Ainscows desperate for help.

In a local newspaper interview last year, Mrs Ainscow described how she and her husband tried an initial, failed suicide attempt, made with 60 sleeping tablets and alcohol after the couple checked into a hotel. "We could see no other way out of the mess our life had become," she said at the time.

Miss Ainscow was sectioned for periods of time under the Mental Health Act. But she absconded on at least one occasion and her detention at Clatterbridge Hospital was curtailed after 10 months. The family moved to Birmingham six months ago, seeking to put the court case behind them. But Birmingham's social care and health directorate indicated this week that the case had not been referred through "any of the normal channels".

The Cheshire and Wirral Partnership NHS Trust and Wirral council social services said this week they would be reviewing the case. But several Merseyside MPs shared the concerns voiced by mental health charities.

The National Autistic Society said Asperger's sufferers - especially adults - needed to be given "a far better degree of access to services". Marjorie Wallace, chief executive of the mental health charity Sane, said: "One can only imagine the despair that drove Bill and Wendy Ainscow. We have been very aware of the family's distressing situation for some time.

"It is truly shocking that this couple had to fight for so many years to get their daughter treatment and that when she was discharged from hospital by a tribunal, they were not informed, let alone given support. The mental health system has a duty to protect ... the family on whose lonely shoulders the burden of care so often falls."