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.
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.
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.
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.
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