Natasha Courtenay-Smith, Daily Mail (London), April 17, 2008
Until recently, Fiona Bauld thought her 18-year-old son Jamie had not fully grasped the gravity of the situation he found himself in.
It brought her solace that her child, who has Down’s syndrome and the mental age of a five-year-old, hadn’t fully comprehended the charges of racism and assault against him, let alone begun to contemplate the consequences.
But one night shortly after Christmas, as the family watched TV, Fiona realised to her horror that Jamie was not as oblivious as she’d hoped.
A scene featuring a prison appeared on screen, at which point Jamie said quietly: “I don’t want to go to jail, Mum. Please don’t let them take me away.” He then burst into tears.
“I rushed over, put my arms around him and told him everything was going to be fine,” says Fiona.
“All through this nightmare I’ve done my best to put on a smile and act normally around Jamie, simply to protect him from everything that was happening. But that night, as he sobbed in my arms, I wasn’t sure everything would be OK.
“My worst fear was that Jamie would be taken away somewhere that I wouldn’t be able to protect him. I said: ‘Jamie, you’re not going to prison’, but I found myself in tears, too.”
When Fiona—who lives in Cumbernauld, Lanarkshire, with her husband James, 46, a telecommunications contractor, and their daughter Stephanie, 17—uses the word “nightmare” she is making no understatement.
Hers is a situation so ridiculous it would be laughable, had the potential ramifications not been so serious.
Her story also serves as a disturbing example of how extreme political correctness can allow minor of incidents to be blown out of all proportion.
The events which have brought her such anguish in recent months begun with what was effectively a playground spat between two individuals with special needs.
It soon escalated into a seven-month criminal investigation that could have resulted in Fiona’s son being hauled before a court and left with a criminal record.
Last September, Jamie—who is 18 but cannot even tie his own shoelaces, needs help on the lavatory, mustn’t be left alone in the house and still relies on his mother to tuck him up in bed at night—had an altercation with an Asian girl of a similar age, also a pupil at the special needs department of Motherwell College in Lanarkshire, where Jamie is a student.
Put quite simply—girl irritated boy, boy pushed girl and told her to go away. Then, girl responded by telling her teacher.
The two were sent their separate ways and their parents informed about the falling out.
Given their mental ages, it was no more significant than a playground spat between two five-year-olds. That should have been the end of it.
Instead, a notice was placed in the local newspaper—it is not known by whom—asking for witnesses to a “racial assault” at the college on the day in question.
Whether this notice led to the police investigation, or whether the family of the girl contacted them directly is still not clear. Either way, just over a week later, Jamie was charged with racism and assault.
It was an insane example of overzealous political correctness; a local zero-tolerance policy on racism taken to its extremes without any common sense being applied, let alone consideration for the unusual circumstances of the individuals involved.
After months of stress and fear, the Baulds’ ordeal came to an end yesterday when, in a remarkable climbdown, the Crown Office issued a formal apology to the family for any distress caused over the past seven months.
All charges have now been dropped, but this, says Fiona, is not enough.
Not only have they encountered confusion, red tape and a lack of compassion in their dealings with the Scottish legal system, they are left fearing that Jamie will forever have a blot on his reputation as a result of being charged at all.
“Our family has been put through a terrible ordeal over nothing,” says Fiona. “It is utterly ridiculous that the authorities brought adult charges against our son, who was not only innocent, but clearly unable to comprehend why he was in trouble.
“For instance, when the police arrived to interview Jamie, he welcomed them with a big smile and a handshake. As they read him his rights, he said thank you for coming to see him, and agreed with everything they said.”
Those with Down’s syndrome often agree with whatever they are told simply to please other people.
Fiona continues: “I said: ‘Do you realise he doesn’t understand what you are saying?’ while the police officers shifted uncomfortably and admitted they had no training in dealing with anyone with special needs.
“But the official process had by then swung into action. From that point on, it seemed there was nothing my husband or I could do to halt it.”
It’s clear that Fiona dotes on her son. Not only is she frequently tearful as she recalls the past seven months, but she describes how she happily gave up her career in hairdressing to become Jamie’s full-time carer.
It was, she says, the only thing she could do given the circumstances she found herself in.
“We had no idea before Jamie was born that he had Down’s syndrome, and we were told the diagnosis when he was just 24 hours old,” she recalls.
“At the time, I was deeply upset—to the point where I had to be sedated. But that passed, and if I’d known what I know now, I wouldn’t have given two hoots about the diagnosis.
“By the time I fell pregnant with his sister, my attitude was that if she has Down’s syndrome too, then that’s fine by me. I adored Jamie, and didn’t wished things had been different.”
Raising Jamie has, nonetheless, been far from an easy task. He has suffered from respiratory and bowel problems, which have seen his parents spend weeks sitting at his hospital bedside.
On two occasions—when Jamie was ten months old and when he was four—Fiona and James were told to prepare themselves for the worst.
“Hospitals have become a second home to me over the years,” says Fiona. “I’ve spent weeks—months even—at Jamie’s bedside. But I’ve always seen him as a fighter, and no matter what the doctors have told me, I’ve always known I’ll be bringing my boy home again.
“Thankfully, he’s always proven me right, refusing to give up even when doctors said there was no hope.”
Since reaching his teens, Jamie’s health has improved and Fiona has watched her son blossom.
“Jamie has got through school, and is now doing a life skills course at Motherwell College, which makes me burst with pride,” she says. “He has friends, he’s sociable and chatty.
“He’s a very loving, kind person. He dotes on his sister, and if she is out, he refuses to go to bed until she gets in.”
Indeed, so placid is Jamie, says Fiona, that he steadfastly refused to respond to the provocation of a year of severe bullying at secondary school.
“One boy really started picking on Jamie when he was about 14, and made his life a misery,” says Fiona. “He punched him in the face, kicked him on numerous occasions, ripped his clothes and even smashed his glasses.
“Jamie used to come home and tell us he couldn’t hit this boy back because they were friends. My son simply has not a got a streak of violence in him, and is so laid back that we always joke that he’s horizontal.”
With this in mind, Fiona was instantly doubtful when she heard Jamie was being accused of hitting the girl at college. She wasn’t, however, surprised to hear a dispute had taken place, because her son had already complained of the girl in question.
“Before this incident at college, Jamie had told us on a couple of occasions that this girl kept following him, staring at him and putting her face really close to his without saying anything,” says Fiona.
“We told him just to ignore her, and she’d soon get bored.
“Then, on September 4, we got a call from the college saying they’d had a falling out and Jamie had hit her. I talked to him, and he was adamant he hadn’t hit her, but had pushed her away when he was eating lunch.
“I didn’t take the event lightly at all—Jamie was meant to be staying with his aunt that night, but I grounded him, and we took away his Playstation for a few days, too.
“I believed him when he said he hadn’t hit her, but I’m not a lax parent and I don’t make allowances because of his disabilities. I wanted to make it clear to Jamie that falling out with students and pushing other people was not a good thing.”
The family went away on holiday, putting the incident behind them. But on their return, they were notified by the college that the girl’s family had contacted the police, who had taken it upon themselves to question other students and staff at the college.
They now wanted to talk to Jamie about allegations of racism and assault.
“I have to say, at first, the whole thing was so ridiculous I didn’t take it that seriously,” says Fiona. “That said, I was really annoyed about the racism part of things. Jamie is far from racist. He doesn’t even realise the difference between skin colours.
“But the college said the police were coming to interview Jamie and I thought: ‘OK then, it won’t do him any harm.’
“I still wanted to be sure Jamie understood he shouldn’t have altercations with other students, and I thought a visit from the police would help him fully grasp that fact.”
However, the police interview a few days later, Jamie was charged with racism and assault.
“I was panicking and saying it was crazy, that Jamie doesn’t even understand things like upstairs and downstairs, whether a door is open or shut, but Jamie stood up, shook their hands and said: ‘Thanks very much’,” says Fiona.
“My husband and I didn’t know then that we should have insisted the officers return with someone specialised in dealing with people with special needs, or perhaps we could have stopped the entire thing there and then.”
The officers, says Fiona, were pleasant enough and advised the family “the case probably wouldn’t come to anything”.
They said they would explain to the Procurator Fiscal (a public officer in Scotland who prosecutes in petty cases) that Jamie had Down’s syndrome.
They revealed that the girl had also admitted to scratching her own face—either to her family or to police officers.
But shortly after the visit, a letter arrived from the Procurator Fiscal saying the authorities had enough evidence to charge Jamie.
2That was when all hell broke loose for us as a family,” says Fiona. “I read the letter with shaking hands, and I was crying my eyes out. I phoned the Procurator’s office five times and asked if they knew Jamie had Down’s syndrome, but no one would talk about the case with me.
“I went to the police, and no one there seemed to know what was going on. I would have been able laugh at the total chaos and incompetence were it not for the fact that I knew that, at 18, Jamie is technically an adult.
“I was genuinely terrified that he would end up in the dock on trial for something he didn’t do.”
During December, Fiona asked the family lawyer to write to the Procurator Fiscal’s office explaining the situation. They did not receive a reply.
“We tried to carry on as normal, but I felt as though we were living on borrowed time, and Jamie was going to be taken away from me,” says Fiona.
“It was as though there was an axe hanging over our head the entire time. We were living with this terrible sense of foreboding.
“The lowest point came when we were watching the prison scene on TV and Jamie started crying. It broke my heart because it made me feel as though I’d failed him.
“My natural instinct as a mother, especially a mother of a child with special needs, was to try and protect him from everything around him, and here he was, sobbing his heart out because he was so frightened.”
It was only a fortnight ago—seven-and-a-half months after the initial incident—that the family received a brief letter from the Procurator Fiscal saying he would not be proceeding with the prosecution. There was no apology.
And despite the Crown’s official apology yesterday, Fiona still feels that they were the victims of “political correctness gone mad”.
A spokeswoman for Down’s Syndrome Scotland is also horrified by the case and called for better handling and understanding.
She says “I’ve never met anyone with Down’s syndrome who was racist. This incident should have been contained within the college. It has been very badly handled.”
Next week, Jamie is due to return to college, and his mother thinks it is likely that he will forget the happenings of the past seven months long before she does.
“Jamie has said he’s happy it’s all over, and he is back to being his usual sunny self,” says Fiona.
“At the moment, I still feel like a nervous wreck, and I’m determined to speak out because I want the people in official positions to think twice about what they are doing, and apply common sense to unique situations like these.
“But at least we can start to get on with our lives again. Last night, as I tucked Jamie up in bed, he asked me once again whether he was going to jail.
“This time, I was able to tell him that no, he definitely, definitely wasn’t.”