Clive and Romaine Smith have been together for a little over 15 years and were married 14 years ago. They have three children, Clive Junior, Max and Marcus aged 13, 10 and 9. Max has recently been diagnosed with what the family GP, Dr Dalziel, terms “severe autism”. The Smith family reside in a small three-bedroom terraced house which is mortgaged to the Far and Wide Building Society, in Clive’s words, “up to the hilt.”
Clive drives a delivery van undertaking contract work for a number of retailers and works a 60 hour week at minimum wage rates. For the most part, Clive is “self-employed” but one retailer employs him under a zero hours contract and only pays him irregularly. Romaine works part-time as an administrative assistant in a publishing firm and is on a very low wage. Her employers are very strict about punctuality and her wages are regularly docked because of lateness. Also, Romaine finds it difficult to meet the very stringent performance targets she is set and sometimes has to work late without recompense. She admits to being very strongly dependent on sleeping tablets.
Romaine claims Child Benefit and Tax Credits and receives an allowance from the local authority in respect of Council Tax but her family are always very short of money and find it very difficult to balance the books. She and Clive are consistently in arrears with the mortgage and only pay their utility bills when they receive red reminders. Romaine finds it very difficult to deal with the demands of the tax credit system and as a result has twice been classed as having been overpaid. Currently, a £700.00 overpayment of this benefit is being clawed back from her ongoing entitlement at a rate equivalent to £10.00 per week. Max’s educational needs have only recently been “officially” recognised and Romaine and Clive both feel strongly that over a very long period of time, his school SENCO and headteacher have simply failed to address his needs.
Although strictly speaking the GPs reference to “severe autism” is a bit of a misnomer, in practice it is absolutely correct. Max’s behaviour is very challenging and unpredictable. He is aggressive and demanding in both school environments. For some reason he recently took a particular dislike to his younger brother and he is constantly teasing and threatening him. Clive and Romaine have quite frequently been called into speak with Max’s headteacher because of his behaviour and in the past year he has been excluded twice for being abusive towards his form teacher and another student. He is easily led and it is generally considered that he has in his mother’s words “got in with the wrong crowd”. Complaints have been made to the school and to the local authority but notwithstanding the recent diagnosis, little has been done. Clive and Romaine have found it very hard even to get their son assessed and in reality, they are too tired and too dispirited to fight back and pursue their complaints.
Clearly, Clive and Romaine are under a lot of pressure. At best, Max is surly and uncommunicative. At worst he can be completely out of control. His parents have to divide their precious time between all three of their children and given his very complex needs, perhaps inevitably, Max does not receive all the help and support that he needs from them. This situation is made all the worse because of his school’s failings.
Not surprisingly, Clive and Romaine’s relationship is very strained. They never have any time to themselves and because of the demands placed on them both by their jobs and Max they can go for days at time without communicating properly. They have considered separating and getting divorced but both appreciate that the financial and other consequences would be disastrous for them and their children. Max would be particularly affected and the reality is that his parents simply cannot afford to separate.
Additionally, Clive and Romaine are both very strongly principled and still love one another. They both take the view that when they got married they made a lifetime commitment and as difficult as their lives are, they have not lost sight of the fact that amongst all the bad times, there have been some very good times. They are especially proud of Marcus who despite having a difficult elder brother to contend with is doing exceptionally well in school and consistently gets very good reports.
The sympathetic Dr Dalziel is very mindful of the Smiths’ circumstances. Following a request from Clive and Romaine for a joint referral for counselling she recommends that they consider seeing a couples counsellor whom she thinks may be able to help them identify some common ground and devise an action plan.
Unfortunately, NHS funding is not available but having agreed to offer the Smiths three one hour sessions at a reduced rate, the counsellor, Josie, makes it abundantly clear that although she is not a lawyer or advisor, there are some non judgemental options that they may care to consider. She suggests they contact a parents’ support group and a benefits advisor, Mr. Moneypenny, who is attached to a local church.
Mr. Moneypenny gives some pointers to Romaine about how to deal with her tax credits problems and to respond to the building society. He also helps her to apply for Disability Living Allowance on Max’s behalf, a benefit that she thought she could not claim because she and Clive are both working (a common misconception).
With these strategies in-place, Josie helps the Smiths to talk through their innumerable concerns and enables them to see that despite all their difficulties, there are a number of positives, not least their commitment to one another and their marriage vows. She helps them to draw up an informal agreement of their own devising which will help them manage their finances better and keep on top of what they termed “the paperwork and bills”. Clive and Romaine also feel able to devise some additional strategies so that they can both have a little time to themselves and they jointly resolve to maintain contact with the support group which has agreed to help them resolve their disagreements with Max’s headteacher.
In the course of the sessions with Josie, Clive and Romaine find that for the first time in quite some years they are communicating meaningfully with one another and they reaffirm their commitment to one another. The immense difficulties that they have had to contend with are only slightly diminished and it cannot be said that they “live happily ever after”. However, they feel they have benefited immensely from Josie’s input and they can face 2017 in a much better frame of mind.
Principal Director of ASM PLUS, civil/commercial, workplace, employment, family and educational mediator and trainer with a judicial/legal background. He has knowledge and expertise in dispute resolution in a wide range of areas and disciplines and mediates online.