Family bullied out of home by neighbours calling them 'spastics and retards'

When Penny and Lee Bracken moved into their new home in January 2016, they felt optimistic about the future.

It was in a quiet spot away from traffic at the end of a cul-de-sac – ideal for the family’s complex range of disabilities including autism, and Asperger’s.

But it wasn’t long before they became the target of a hateful campaign in which some neighbours called them ‘spastic’ and retard’, left dog poo in their garden and physically assaulted them.

Penny told ‘There were youths mocking walk or mimicking my mobility scooter it just became every day.

‘You couldn’t go out, you couldn’t have the windows open because of the abuse that you got from out there.’

The verbal taunts soon escalated into physical violence, with one terrifying attack on their home resulting in Lee and his then eight-year-old daughter getting punched in the face.

Upsetting CCTV footage from their home in Trevor Smith Place shows then 17-year-old Harry getting pulled by his neck and dragged over a metal railing.

Penny says despite offering reams of recorded evidence and a man owning up to attacking their teenage son, no prosecutions were made.

They said police and social services frequently framed them as ‘difficult or uncooperative’, took the side of their neighbours and even accused them of ‘staging’ abuse.

After years of struggling with their neighbours, the family were eventually given new housing in a different area.

Penny who has fibromyalgia, developmental displacement of the hip, ME and OCD, said the trouble began with children kicking balls into their garden.

She said: ‘The parents came and just started shouting abuse at us and getting really aggressive. I explained I couldn’t always get up.

‘It’s not easy for me to get outside and hurl balls back over to them, and then they just started mocking us, saying that we were Billy no-mates, no one likes us.’

A couple of weeks later, Penny says dog poo started being left in their front garden, which their home’s CCTV revealed was from one particular neighbour walking his dog in the middle of the night.

The family say people deliberately parked their cars to block Penny’s wheelchair access.

After an argument about an obstructive car on Christmas Day 2016, the family say the anti-social behaviour and threats of violence ‘really got bad’.

Penny said: ‘By this point everybody was scared to go out and walk the dog because whenever we went out we were mocked, or threatened or we had footballs kicked at us.’

The mum-of-seven says the housing agency and police were often called but that ‘they weren’t really interested’.

She added: ‘They would come out and it was almost like they’d always believe their version of events even though I had it on CCTV.

‘You give them the evidence and then they don’t do anything. It kind of took over our life’.

‘They were getting worse and they were getting more serious but the police were coming out more often. The neighbours are getting more confident because they keep getting away with it.

‘I felt even more vulnerable, more let down, not protected at all and it was very very draining it put a big strain on our whole family it was almost like being a prisoner in your own home.

‘They didn’t like the fact that we were different, they found it absolutely hilarious. They were calling us things like retards and spastics, which was especially really nasty for my son and my husband.’

Lee, 46, who worked as a labourer for 20 years before nerve damage forced him to quit, was allegedly dismissed by officers as ‘aggressive and confrontational’.

His wife says his Asperger’s, sensory processing disorder, PTSD, OCD and anxiety means explaining the situation again and again to different officers was ‘very draining’ and frustrating.

Penny added: ‘It got to the point where they said “we can’t talk to you, your husband can’t hold a proper conversation”.’

‘He’s autistic and he’s straight to the point, you might not always like what you hear, but he’s certainly not aggressive and he’s certainly not confrontational.’

Around September 2017, Penny learned Somerset County Council’s social services and other parties were holding ‘Team Around the Child’ meetings, discussing discussing their suitability as parents.

She agreed to a last minute meeting at their home and felt like their ‘privacy was being invaded’ when a social worker asked to look around their children’s rooms.

Notes from TAC meetings seen by show the family being accused of ‘staging’ attacks by neighbours, without explaining how they did so.

They say there was ‘no evidence’ of the children being homeschooled, which Penny says was based on a brief visit to their home.

Lee was accused of threatening someone in town with a knife, which Penny calls a ‘complete fabrication’, with no police action taken.

The notes also suggested he could have been pretending to have autism, based on the fact he was seen without his ear defenders and sunglasses used to prevent sensory overload.

But when he was spotted he says it was dark outside and that he was wearing discrete earplugs instead.

Penny was ‘absolutely disgusted’ by the notes and called for the next TAC meeting be held at her house, but no one confirmed their attendance and it never went ahead.

In April 2018 youths were mocking Harry, now 19, who has Asperger’s, sensory processing disorder and Tourettes.

They kicked footballs at his head and called him an ‘autistic freak’ before saying there was ‘going to be an incident’ which get the family kicked off the estate.

Harry and his sister went inside before Lee answered the door to a woman ‘kicking off about how they weren’t giving footballs back’.

Penny added: ‘She was smoking as well, she actually put her feet in the front door and was smoking in the house, and my husband hates smoking, he can’t handle it.

‘He kept saying ‘can you put that out, can you put that away please?’

Meanwhile a group of neighbours ganged up around the back of the house threatening Harry and his siblings.

Penny added: ‘My children were petrified someone’s going to get to me and attack me.’

She says Harry made a comment about neighbours ‘being bullies’.

One then reportedly shouted: ‘I’ll show you f***ing bully’ before grabbing him by the neck and pulling him into the handrail.

As they tried to stop the violence both Lee and his now 12-year-old daughter Olivia were punched in the face before six police cars showed up.

Penny says officers ‘didn’t give us any time of day’ and only came to them two hours after talking to neighbours.

She says they saw their CCTV footage of the attack but that no arrests were made.

Eventually after an endless stream of harassment and balls shooting into their garden, the family decided to give up their companion dog.

This was devastating news for Olivia, who has autism and selective mutism, who found the animal really helped her communicate more effectively.

After going on a much needed holiday, the family say they received an email from police telling them an order was being made under the Children’s Act because their young ones were ‘at risk of harm’.

Their advocate agreed to a meeting at their home with social workers, but they didn’t expect them to turn up with six police officers and a battering ram.

The representative, who worked for Community Care Matters, deescalated the situation and the matter was instead taken to a hearing.

The conclusion of the County Hall meeting, in documents seen by, say: ‘Parents are providing the children with a warm, loving home, and allowing them access to good home educational opportunities. Risk of family safety falls from action of the community in which they reside.’

Authorities were ordered to assist in an emergency move and the family were found a new place in Devon by LiveWest.

During this time Harry was suffering so badly from anxiety and depression that he was unable to sit his exams and had to give up his multi-trade college course.

In October 2018 the family received a letter from Taunton Police Station claiming no further action would be taken over the April attack due to a lack of evidence.

During this time, it emerged that LiveWest had accidentally sent the Bracken’s personal and sensitive data to their neighbours.

A spokesman for the housing association said they are ‘offering help and support to the family’ but say they did not take up their offer of mediation.

They added: ‘In 2018 personal data relating to the Bracken family was inadvertently sent to a third party as a result of a subject access request.

‘As soon we were made aware of this, the error was dealt with promptly and the data retrieved. We have apologised to the Bracken family for this.’

An Avon and Somerset Police spokesman said complaints in September 2017 about a lack of action over anti-social behaviour and in June 2018 over the visit with social workers were dealt with by ‘local resolution’.

He said the force made efforts to help the family but claimed their ‘lack of engagement proved challenging’.

A spokesman said Somerset County Council cannot comment on individual cases but that the authority works with a number of vulnerable families with ‘complex and challenging situations’.

He said the TAC meetings are ‘inclusive of all families members’ with an emphasis of making everyone involved.

The spokesman added: ‘In situations where parents themselves are vulnerable we can access an advocate who is able to work on behalf of them and ensure their voice is heard.’

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