Fern Foster

Fern was a daughter, a stepdaughter, a big sister, a granddaughter, a niece, a cousin, a best friend, a partner and a mother – a soul that left a profound impact on the people she knew and the communities she belonged to. She was deeply loved by those around her. She was a young, bright, and brilliant 22-year-old at the start of her adult life journey, ready for adventure and experiences that she would never get to have.

Fern had been diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder as a teenager, and at 15 it was confirmed that she was autistic. Fern was proudly autistic.

Fern had been struggling with her mental health, and whilst receiving treatment for an overdose in Summer 2019, Fern and her partner Max, discovered she was pregnant. They were both delighted. Fern turned all her attention to learning how to parent, and to keeping herself safe. From the moment Fern found out she was pregnant, until her baby was removed from her care, she did not once self-harm or put herself at risk.

Buckinghamshire Children’s Services became involved before Fern’s baby was born. Their involvement was a key feature of Fern’s inquest. Fern’s baby was removed from her care when they were a month old, when they were six months old Max and Fern received the news that the local authority were applying for them to be adopted. There was no support provided to them to receive and process this news. Hours later Fern died.

The coroner found that Fern died by suicide. He said there were two contributory factors, 1) Lack of independent advocacy 2) The manner in which she learned the news her baby was likely to be adopted, without any professional support.

[I was only able to attend court for three days, at the opening and closing, but my reporting is below]

Family Statement

We are pleased that the lack of advocacy provided in Fern’s care, and the inappropriate delivery of the proposed care plan for adoption that the local authority had submitted, have been recognised as the causes of Fern’s death. Mothers who face their children being removed should be supported, especially autistic mothers, as autistic women have a 13 times higher risk of death by suicide. It is tragic that there was never a clear plan to support Fern to be a mother, nor to protect her safety when she was told that would not be possible.

Fern herself, and we as a family, stressed the importance of proper advocacy and the need for all staff involved to have training in autism and make reasonable adjustments to the way they engaged with her to account for her disability. These essential requirements were repeatedly ignored, inevitably pushing Fern to breaking point. This was no way to treat a vulnerable, disabled, first time mum.

We continue to believe that, in refusing to provide the advocacy, support and the reasonable adjustments Fern was entitled to, Buckinghamshire Council cost Fern her life and a baby her mother. With the right support, Fern would have become a wonderful mother. Instead, they made her feel like a bad mother, without telling her why or giving her a chance to try.

Fern felt she was continuously set up to fail due to lack of reasonable adjustments. She could not process the decisions that were being made that were often based on inaccurate information, and we couldn’t explain those decisions to her, because they didn’t make sense to us either.

We believe that the lack of understanding and acceptance of autism in women and girls significantly contributed to the poor care that Fern received. She was diagnosed late, repeatedly labelled with a personality disorder that she did not have, and the stigma around this led to her being harmed. Fern was open about her suicidality, yet she was not taken seriously. The misdiagnosis of personality disorders must end, as must the punitive and dangerous culture of care which comes alongside them. Fern felt very strongly about this.

Finally, we feel that the right of autistic parents to access the support they deserve is not adequately protected in policy or law. It is imperative that this changes and that autistic parents are protected in future.