Case study: ‘He’s a 10-year-old child with disabilities . . . I can’t see how isolating helps’

Debbie Kennedy says the regular use of seclusion has worsened her son’s behaviour

Dylan Kennedy (10) with his mother Debbie Kennedy at home in Dublin. Photograph: The Irish Times

Dylan Kennedy (10) with his mother Debbie Kennedy at home in Dublin. Photograph: The Irish Times

 

Debbie Kennedy accepts her 10-year-old son can be difficult to handle on occasion.

He’s autistic and has been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

There are times when he gets frustrated, angry and stressed. Equally, she says, he can be calmed down quickly with simple interventions.

“He’s very intelligent,” says Kennedy.”He could tell you anything about any car. He loves Top Gear . . . when he does act out, I can control him with one hand or distract him.”

But she says the past past two years have been marked by a sharp deterioration in his behaviour. She puts much of this down to what she says was the overuse of seclusion at school to control his behaviour.

In all, she estimates he was placed in a seclusion or “time-out” room on more than 30 occasions over a two-year period.

While in most cases she was told they were for short periods of time, she maintains that on a several occasions he was placed there for up to two hours at a time.

“In order to help a vulnerable child like Dylan manage his emotions and control his behaviour, he needs support, guidance and explanation,” she says.

“If he’s isolated from others, without guidance or support, I can’t see how that helps. In fact, it’s a more frightening experience – especially for a child with disabilities.”

Benincasa Special School in Blackrock, Co Dublin, said that while it was not in a position to comment on Dylan’s individual case, the school had always acted “properly and in accordance with good practice at all times”.

In line with its policies, seclusion was only ever used as a measure of last resort and where a child was disruptive to the point of posing an imminent danger to themselves or others.

Kennedy, however, feels the school was too quick to seclude her son and says he regularly came home in tears after being placed in the room, or isolated from the wider class.

“He would spend hours crying, saying how much he wanted to die and felt he wasn’t good enough.”

She also feels he was placed in the room on foot of relatively minor incidents, like throwing a pencil against a blackboard or refusing to do work.

School records, however, show there were occasions when he kicked or punched staff. On one occasion, he is said to have raised a chair in the air, before it was taken from him.

The seclusion room – based on photographs taken by Dylan’s mother – is a small bare room with no furniture.

Peephole

There is a window with metal bars on the outside. The door has no handle on the inside and there is a peephole for staff.

The school said a staff member was present outside the seclusion room, monitoring the student, at all times.

“The seclusion room is designed with regards to the health and safety of the student in question. The room does not contain certain furniture as such items are often considered safety hazards to both the student or staff members,” it said.

Kennedy ended up withdrawing permission for her son to be placed in the room. Afterwards, she says she would receive phone calls from 9.10am onwards asking her to collect him.

He ended up being taught at home by his mother for long periods and resumed school on a limited basis.

She is careful to say Dylan enjoyed several successful years at his special school prior to this and many staff went out of their way to help and support him. “I couldn’t speak highly enough of them.”

But she feels the use of seclusion has left a damaging legacy which Dylan is still coming to terms with.

“He needs therapy after all that’s happened. We can be out having fun and he’ll mention what happened to him,” she says.

“He is the most caring and affectionate boy. He’s clever and funny and has a huge obsession with cars. I wouldn’t change him for anything.”