Always interesting, often different

The ATOS Form

The Dreaded Envelope

The frantic phone call came a few days ago. My friend *Kim, normally so talkative, could hardly speak. ‘It’s come, I’ve been staring at it, I don’t know how to answer the questions.’ Once she’d got the first words out, the rest spilled out in a torrent; ‘If they cut my benefit I can’t manage. What if they try to send me back to work, I can’t even manage to do my volunteering one day a week.’

I’m really concerned at this, Kim had tried so hard to get a placement with a local children’s storytelling charity. She was thrilled when she was accepted, it was a real boost to her self-confidence. ‘Why, what’s happened?’ I enquire. ‘Since the form came, I’ve gone right back, I can’t cope with anything.’ Was her almost tearful reply.

‘Can I come over to yours? Can you help me fill in the form?’ She pleaded. ‘Yes, of course, come on Monday’ I quickly responded. ‘We’ll get it sorted together’ I heard a huge sigh of relief on the other end of the phone. Then, I was able to talk to her about her children, her son married last summer and now in the US on a work placement and her daughter, A beautiful bright young woman, taking her A levels this year.

A normal mum and kids, you might think. But no, Kim’s children have not lived with her for many years. Her son was the first to go into care, getting involved with drugs and the wrong crowd. Her daughter was eventually long-term fostered by a family member, after a placement where she was physically abused. The woman who has fostered her daughter is the only non-alcoholic, in a toxic family, with two generations of troubled drinkers.

Kim didn’t stand a chance, abused and neglected as a child, she left home to escape, and didn’t make good choices about the men she had relationships with. Remarkably she went to university and got a degree, but the only man she married, and the father of her daughter would not support his family, so Kim left, and never did get any money from him.

I first met her through an ex-girlfriend, who was trying to help Kim look after her children. Kim’s flat was as chaotic as her life had been. I remember Kim being so relieved when the police arrested her then boyfriend for attempted murder. As was I, having felt a coward for not wanting to enter her flat if he was there.

Shortly after that, the children went into care, Kim was determined to get clean and sober, she went to rehab, did really well. She was given a property in a new area, and plans were made for her to get her daughter back.

But then, everything started to go wrong. The house had no hot water, no heating, and Kim had very little money to get basics such as a cooker and a fridge. I visited her daily to give her some support, and despite everything she was cheerful and longing to have her daughter home. There had been short visits, then longer ones, but no overnight stays. Suddenly, the social workers decided that a long bank holiday weekend was the best time for Kim’s 7 year old daughter to return home.

The house still did not have heat, hot water or a cooker that worked. No carpets on the floor and no proper beds, only mattresses. The social workers knew this. Kim was scared, she knew the situation with the house wasn’t right, but she dare not refuse to have her daughter home.

By the Monday lunchtime things had gone wrong. Kim had just had her first sip of alcohol in over 12 months, when her daughter’s previous foster mum turned up unannounced, accused Kim of being completely drunk (she wasn’t) and dragged Kim’s crying daughter out of the house. When I got there 10 minutes later, Kim was sober, she had poured the drink away and was distraught at loosing her daughter again. We couldn’t contact the social workers, our messages were not returned. Nothing could be done until the next day.

Kim was blamed, the social workers not caring that such a quick return was almost bound to fail, especially with the house not suitable for a young child to stay in. This time Kim had no chance, her daughter was to be long-term fostered 200 miles away.

Kim was devastated, started drinking again and eventually went back to rehab. She moved away from London to a small rural town be nearer her daughter. I didn’t see her for a couple of years, till she returned to London, still sober, but having missed the culture of a big city.

She saved what little money she had to keep going north to see her daughter. Her son had a flat nearby and started training to become a social worker, hopefully a better one than those who had failed his family. He and Kim had also become Christians, which gave Kim a new family.

But now, Kim’s world is threatened by an uncaring government, bent on penalising people who are unable to work. Every benefit claimant is being reassessed. The process being run by a government contractor, ATOS who have recently announced they will be terminating their involvement in this discredited process.

All of us on benefits are affected, and some have not survived. Many people have died, having been told only days earlier they were ‘fit for work’ others have committed suicide. Such is the pressure placed on them by this inhuman system.

Anyone newly applying to the DWP for benefits is having to wait months to get the money they need to live on, making people destitute and needing to use Food Banks to survive.

Despite being sober, Kim has anxiety, this is a long term condition, she also has long-standing depression, arthritis, poor balance, vision problems and finds if difficult to concentrate and follow through on tasks.

Individually, these are not insurmountable problems, but all together they mitigate against Kim being able to work.

Hence her fear of filling out the form and being forced to compete for work, with little chance of obtaining, let alone sustaining employment.

Whilst Kim is well read and articulate, she was one of the people who encouraged me to write this blog, filling out the capability for work form has defeated her.

Kim’s creativity, with both words and her artistic skills, are no help. So I need to try and ensure the form is completed in such a way as to maximise Kim’s chances of retaining her current level of benefits.

The prospect if I’m unsuccessful, is too awful to contemplate. Would my lovely kind friend survive, would her long fought for sobriety be lost? All I’m sure of is that until Kim knows that her benefit payments are secure again, everything is at risk.

*Kim is a pseudonym to protect my friend’s anonymity.

The cartoon by Crippen Cartoons is reproduced by kind permission.

 

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