There was no justice for LB. Connor Sparrowhawk was eighteen years old when he died a preventable death whilst in the care of Slade House, a specialist unit run and notionally managed by Southern Health Authority. My son John was 25 at the time of his unavoidable death from cancer at The Churchill Hospital, also in Oxford.
Sara paints a picture of an eighteen-year-old young man who was appreciated by his family and everyone who knew him for his humor, his passions and his quirky ways. Connor was handsome in the same way that my John was handsome. Both had think dark hair, beautiful eyes, high cheekbones and a certain elegance. Eddy Stobbard lorries and buses floated Connor’s boat and John was passionate about reading. Both of them loved being in the heart of their slightly chaotic and highly creative families. John was a student at Balliol College Oxford and Connor was a school leaver who if given the chance might have gone on to college or an apprenticeship. He would certainly have found something which would have appealed to his boundless enthusiasms. Buses may well have been involved. I always imagined John would end up working in a book shop. Our sons were not concerned with getting a foot on the property ladder or being employed in roles which did not suit their interests or ways of being in the world.
The University of Oxford is associated with labels like ‘clever’. Connor’s records of his life from education, health and social care providers would have used words like learning disabled, epileptic and autistic. Sara makes the point that when professionals view a person through the othering lens of such labels this can contribute to their making value judgements about this person’s worth. When people sympathize with us and talk about John being ‘highly intelligent’ and find myself thinking that they are missing the point. Being ‘clever’ is not a prerequisite to being loved beyond words. Connor’s family loved him ‘to the moon and back’ and his learning disabilities, autism and epilepsy had nothing to do with it as is the case with all disabled sons and daughters. I can say this with authority from family experience and over thirty years of working with disabled pupils and students. John and Connor’s families would both simply use terms like lovely, beloved, brother, son, nephew, grandson, friend, our Connor and our John.
Our boys are still in the same city but let’s not forget that they are now neighbors in the cemetery which is no place for anyone 18 or 25. Sara and I will not be able to make new memories with our beloved sons and they will be forever young. My grief is killing me but I do not have the extra dimension of knowing that neglect was the reason for my son’s death. Everyone did all they could to save John’s life for the whole year of his cancer treatment and right up until the end. The staff at Slade House did nothing to keep Connors safe and his death was caused be indifference. Sara and her family have been criticized for their tenacity in pursuing the cause of Connor’s drowning. As a family we have met only compassion since we lost our beloved son. At the heart of LB’s story is a bereaved family who have not been signposted towards sources of support or treated kindly. Organizations such as The Compassionate Friends UK are there for exactly this purpose but I get no sense at all from Sara’s book that any professionals involved themselves in the wellbeing of those left behind in the aftermath of the tragic loss of Connor.
Sara’s book is mostly about love but she would not have needed to write it if Connor was still alive so the catalyst was the indifference which played a huge part in her adored son’s death. At times it is funny but laughter can turn to tears quickly because with every amusing anecdote about Connor’s little ways and family goings on there is the undercurrent of the fact that this family was first ripped apart and then vilified for wanting answers about why Connor had died.
The audience for Justice for Laughing Boy is just about any discipline and just about any person. It is on my reading lists at London South Bank University where I am Professor of Social Justice in Education. Sara makes it clear that he is not the only person labelled with terms like learning disabilities, epilepsy and autism who has died in similar circumstances and cites Winterbourne View as an example of an institution where abuse was commonplace. It comes very naturally to me to empathize with Sara Ryan and her family because I am a bereaved mum too. Anyone who is ever likely to be in a position to make sure nothing like this ever happens again needs to flex their empathy muscled very hard and listen to the voice inside their head that is saying ‘if this was a child of mine’.
Wordsworth, himself a bereaved father, deserves the last word.
‘’I loved the Boy with the utmost love of which my soul is capable, and he is taken from me yet in the agony of my spirit in surrendering such a treasure I feel a thousand times richer than if I had never possessed it’’.
(c) Nicola Martin
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