Mistreatment and multi-agency failure: The story of the Bracken Family10 min read

For many of us as we grew up, we were encour­aged to trust those in authority. We were taught that the police were there to pro­tect us and shield us from those who wish to cause us harm.

For one family in Somerset how­ever, the police became a source of a great deal of trauma. What fol­lows is the story of the Bracken Family. As a fore­warning, this story con­tains descrip­tions of abuse of power, gaslighting, assault, and con­sis­tent failure by those in a posi­tion of authority.

Penny Bracken is phys­i­cally dis­abled, her hus­band Lee is autistic, her son Harry is autistic with Tourette’s, and her daughter Olivia is autistic. There are five other chil­dren in the family, all of whom are home­schooled.

In January 2016, the Bracken family moved into social housing in a home suited to accom­mo­date Penny’s phys­ical dis­ability under the housing asso­ci­a­tion Live West (for­merly known as Knightstone) in Taunton, Somerset, UK.

Their house was at the end of the street, out of the way of traffic. “No one needed to drive down as far as our house unless they lived at our house. So, ideal. Nice and quiet for those with sen­sory issues,” says Penny.

Shortly after moving into the house, they intro­duced them­selves to their neigh­bours. “We explained that some of us were autistic, and that if we were chatty some­times and not others, it was nothing per­sonal,” Penny told me. One of her neigh­bours was a teaching assis­tant in a local Church of England school, and her hus­band was a chap­lain.

A few weeks went by, and the Bracken family noticed there was a lot of dog poo in their front garden. Residents would also block the entrance to the dri­veway, making it very dif­fi­cult for her dis­ability mini-bus to gain access. “We let it go, not wanting hassle, but it just got worse,” says Penny.

The locals esca­lated to anti­so­cial behav­iour; youths would kick balls at the win­dows of the Bracken family’s house and damage their vehi­cles with their scooters. One young man even pulled the man­i­fold off of one of the vehi­cles when retrieving their foot­ball. “This became a daily thing,” Penny tells me. They called their housing provider to request a “no ball games” sign, but this was refused.

The police had a word with the youths, telling them not to enter the Bracken family’s prop­erty but instead wait for them to return the balls, unfor­tu­nately this had no effect. The children’s par­ents started coming onto the prop­erty, shouting abuse and mocking Penny and her family. “It got very per­sonal, and it became clear that it was aimed at the autistic people in the family,” says Penny.

Things came to a head on Christmas of 2016. “Next door blocked me in on Christmas day, and I had to knock to ask them to move,” Penny recalled. “This didn’t go well, and another vehicle was parked right across my dri­veway.” The ensuing con­fronta­tion resulted in the police being called out. “From that day, our lives were hell.”

The housing asso­ci­a­tion were still refusing to step in at this point, and what had been prej­u­diced, offen­sive behav­iour turned into bla­tant, ableist dis­crim­i­na­tion. “My autistic family mem­bers were called retards, spas­tics, mongs, weird, and dis­abled freaks.”

On one occa­sion, Penny’s autistic son and daughter had someone drive a vehicle towards them like they were going to run over the chil­dren, nearly knocking the kids off of their bikes. In fact, one res­i­dent actu­ally did back a vehicle into Harry pur­pose­fully. Youths mocked Penny’s chil­dren and bul­lied them when­ever they played out­side.

Residents were making threats and con­stantly dam­aging the prop­erty. “They would jump walls and fences to get into our garden, we were intim­i­dated con­stantly, threats made, per­se­cuted, mocked, harassed, fol­lowed,” Penny recalls.

Their life was becoming a living night­mare. Despite over 100 inci­dent logs with Avon and Somerset police, the housing providers would do nothing; in fact, they began to sug­gest that the Bracken family were the problem.

When Penny gave birth to her son in September of 2017, she says she felt like they were “pris­oners in our own home.” The police and Live West took no action, claiming that the sit­u­a­tion was a low-level neigh­bour­hood dis­pute, despite the fact that at this point approx­i­mately ten res­i­dents of the housing com­mu­nity were reg­u­larly involved.

Penny tells me that the police would not even look at the CCTV footage of the inci­dents, let alone con­sider it as evi­dence.

Penny’s mid­wife sug­gested they seek help from a group called “GetSet” to get the kids into some clubs and get some sup­port for Penny and her hus­band. “This was the first cover up,” Penny revealed. “They in fact worked for social ser­vices.”

Penny felt like the chil­dren were ben­e­fit­ting from the ser­vices and it seemed as though they were helping the chil­dren, so they con­fided in them. It turned out that were holding TAC (Team Around the Child) meet­ings behind the fam­i­lies back; “one day after their visit and asking to see the children’s rooms, I started to doubt their motives” says Penny.

Penny requested the notes from these TAC meet­ings and was hor­ri­fied to dis­cover that they were full of lies and ableist mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tions of her family’s behav­iour. “They accused my hus­band and son of being aggres­sive and con­fronta­tional, that they couldn’t hold a proper con­ver­sa­tion” Penny told me, “They said we staged the inci­dents and there was no hate crime.”

The notes even accused Lee of lying about being autistic. Their jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for this again was that he had been seen in town without ear defenders and sun­glasses; how­ever, on the day in ques­tion, he was in fact wearing dis­creet ear plugs, and it was dark, making sun­glasses some­what redun­dant.

The TAC notes also accused Penny and her family of lying about her son’s and daugh­ter’s autism diag­noses, claiming that Penny and her hus­band were raising their chil­dren with “a per­se­cu­tion com­plex.” They accused the Brackens of using their chil­dren to stage inci­dents. “They said we were unco­op­er­a­tive and refused to help.”

Professionals alleged that there was no evi­dence of school­work taking place, and a second report alleged that Lee has threat­ened his daugh­ter’s boyfriend with a knife. “This never hap­pened and was a com­plete insult because my hus­band lost his brother to a knife crime,” Penny told me.

In April 2018, Penny’s chil­dren were playing out­side. Youths began mocking her son, kicking him, and kicking foot­balls at his head. “They were chanting things and calling him an autistic freak” says Penny.

A youth shouted, “Once this inci­dent takes place, Knightstone will kick you out!” — a state­ment that con­fused and con­cerned the family. The police attended but took no action. Penny texted the officer asking him to come back because she knew some­thing was going to happen.

While Penny’s chil­dren played out­side, approx­i­mately 20 res­i­dents hov­ered out­side of the home. “Someone knocked on the door, a decoy to dis­tract my hus­band from my son. She put her foot in the door and adults threat­ened to break into the back of my house and attack me,” Penny told me.

They called 999, fearing for their lives.

Penny’s eldest daughter, Olivia, grabbed the younger chil­dren and attempted to pre­vent the other res­i­dents from gaining access to the gate, get­ting punched in the face in the process. Harry (then 17 years old) attempted to stand up to them, calling them “bul­lies.”

“[Harry] didn’t under­stand he was in danger,” says Penny.

A 25-year-old boxer grabbed Harry by the neck, shoving him into the wall and then drag­ging him over a metal railing. As you can plainly see in the video below, the attack was com­pletely unpro­voked.

Lee tried to inter­vene and was punched him­self. “They were filming what they were doing,” says Penny. They con­tinued to chant “spas­tics” and “freaks” at the family.

Despite Harry requiring an ambu­lance, the police took two hours to attend, having first gone to the res­i­dents to speak to them. The police watched the CCTV footage of the attack but made no arrests. Penny tried to get a solic­itor (lawyer), but everyone she spoke to was unwilling to take on the police force.

Eventually, Penny found an advo­cate who would take the case. “[The advo­cate] believed me when I said I felt like some con­spiracy was going on as the police were not helping us.”

A week later, the Bracken family took a much-needed family vaca­tion to the Canary Islands, but upon their return had to leave again, as they did not feel safe in their home.

During the last days of their hol­iday, an email exchange occurred wherein it tran­spired that social ser­vices intended to place the chil­dren under a sec­tion 21 child pro­tec­tion order (which gives local author­i­ties the power to remove chil­dren from their home and place them in the cus­tody of a nom­i­nated res­i­dence). They claimed that Penny was abusing her chil­dren.

Penny con­tacted her advo­cate, and they agreed to meet with social ser­vices. Instead they arrived with 6 police offi­cers, 2 social workers, and a bat­tering ram. They threat­ened to break the door down and take the chil­dren by force. The advo­cate inter­vened and brought the con­fronta­tion to an end. The matter was taken to a hearing where Penny and Lee were found to be great par­ents and allowed to keep their chil­dren.

At this point, I feel it’s impor­tant to point out that police doc­u­ments claim that the chil­dren were never at risk of harm, and that no action was to be taken, implying that the con­fronta­tion was nothing more than a bul­lying tactic. The doc­u­ment in ques­tion is pic­tured below.

braxken family social services report
Image reads that the chil­dren are not at risk of harm, and that they are making “excel­lent aca­d­emic progress and presents as happy and thriving.”

The courts ordered the pro­fes­sionals involved to sup­port the Bracken family and assist them in an emer­gency move due to them feeling unsafe and at risk in their home. Up until this point, the author­i­ties had been denying that a hate crime had taken place, a tune that changed after inter­ven­tion by the courts.

Harry’s anx­iety and depres­sion became so severe fol­lowing the assault that he was unable to sit for his exams and return to col­lege. They then received an email from the police requesting an inter­view with Harry. “They believed he was the [antag­o­nist] in the assault and shoved someone down to the ground before the assault,” says Penny.

As is clear from the footage, this was com­plete fab­ri­ca­tion. Police began to treat Harry as a per­pe­trator rather than a victim, lying that he was unco­op­er­a­tive and refusing to grant him an appro­priate adult to assist in inter­views.

Penny and her family relo­cated to Devon in October 2018. Shortly after­wards they received a letter from Avon and Somerset police claiming that despite the res­i­dents admit­ting their crimes, they believed Harry to be the antag­o­nist and would be taking no fur­ther action. During this time, they dis­cov­ered that Live West had sent their per­sonal data to the res­i­dents involved in the attack, to date they have been offered £2000 as com­pen­sa­tion, but have refused, they do not want money, they want jus­tice. A letter from Live West admit­ting their error is pic­tured below.

bracken family live west letter
Document from LiveWest admit­ting to sharing the Bracken fam­i­ly’s per­sonal data to the attackers.

During all of this, the family had to re-home their daugh­ter’s beloved com­panion dog. Due to the danger from the res­i­dents, they were no longer able to take the dog for walks; the garden was unsafe as res­i­dents would throw things over the fence into the garden. Many of us will appre­ciate how gut­ting this is, as com­panion ani­mals are part of the family.

In a fur­ther blow to the family, their advo­cate– trau­ma­tised by the mis­treat­ment he had wit­nessed– took his own life, leaving Penny and her family without the one person who sup­ported them. Despite asking a solic­itor to help them trigger a rein­ves­ti­ga­tion, no action has been taken by the police.

The Bracken family have been through so much. I sus­pect that many of us can relate to the feeling of betrayal and dis­trust that this family now has. The truth is that training for author­i­ties, be they police or social ser­vices, is extra­or­di­narily lack­lustre when it comes to dis­ability and mental health.

It is impor­tant to note that Lee’s social worker (the only autism spe­cialist in the area) offered to pro­vide training to the police and mul­tiple agen­cies, but this offer was declined by all the author­i­ties approached.

This family was con­sis­tently vic­timised and bul­lied by those who were meant to pro­tect them from the ableist attacks of the other res­i­dents on their housing estate. And the Bracken case, sadly, is not unique. According to autistic advo­cate Kieran Rose, “Local Authorities in the UK are hell-bent on things like parental blame, fab­ri­cated and induced ill­ness (FII, for­merly Munchausen’s by Proxy)– more and more fam­i­lies are under threat of child removal. It mostly comes from their neg­li­gent training (they self-train on Autism, usu­ally), their ten­dancy to box-tick, mas­sive under­funding, huge case­loads, and– because they’re bureau­cracy– once they ven­ture down this path, they can’t stop.”

The Aspergian team would like to ask the autistic com­mu­nity to join us in demanding jus­tice for the Bracken family, whose sto­ries are not unique in the UK. We ask for reforms that safe­guard dis­abled people from insti­tu­tional abuse from those who are sup­posed to pro­tect them and repa­ra­tions for the Bracken family.

You can follow Penny Bracken on Twitter @BrackenPenny for updates on her story, and you can get involved in the con­ver­sa­tion using the hashtag #HarryDeservesJustice.

People need to be angry about this. We cannot allow this kind of mis­treat­ment to exist at the dawn of a new decade. Standing against the abuse suf­fered by the Bracken family is to stand against all insti­tu­tional injus­tice– which affects people of color even more.

David Gray-Hammond
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  1. God, what a hor­ri­fying story!

    1. It does feel like a lynch mob🤪

  2. I feel like autistic people are like the neu­rotyp­ical world’s des­ig­nated person in the short story “those who walk away from Omelas’ (avail­able free online). The des­ig­nated people to throw all the shade, hate and psy­chic dark­ness on so they dont have to face them­selves or their own B.S.
    It’s truly dis­turbing the way NT’s often act, even just strangers, even family mem­bers, towards autis­tics (even those ‘invis­ible’ aspies who can mask very well). We hear it again and again and again. Its one of the most uni­versal autistic expe­ri­ences — unjus­ti­fi­able tar­get­ting. And it lit­er­ally makes zero sense. Aspies/autistic people never hurt anyone, never mean harm, pretty much never do a damn thing wrong (and when an aspie does react in any way, its because they were really pushed to if you look into it, theres always a reason, even if just sen­sory)

  3. Horrendous! Not only the neigh­bours’ behav­iour but that of the author­i­ties as well.

  4. How absolutely awful! I had heard a little but not the full extent. I wish there was a way the people who attacked the Brackens and the agen­cies who failed them could be pros­e­cuted for what they’ve done.

    1. By pairing the agen­cies’ nom­inal duties, with the strategy/planning processes for our ser­vices, an auto­matic duty of action can be cited log­i­cally to exist and cre­ated. That will build up a posi­tion of being able to crim­i­nalise agen­cies who mal­prac­tice or who do nothing.
      This case is a flag for the good sense it will make to build this up. By folks citing this duty, from common sense logic, in every inter­ac­tion we get with the plan­ning processes / reviews of ser­vices etc.

  5. Yet another reason for autistic people to fear/distrust the police. How sad.

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