THIS week saw a huge victory for the McClenahan family in Fintona who had their severely disabled daughter’s Disability Living Allowance (DLA) reinstated after over three months without payments.
Talitha Grace McClenahan was born with Down’s syndrome, as well as a range of other serious medical conditions – Athetoid Cerebral Palsy, Spastic Quadriplegia, a right sided Hemiparesis, and a cardiac condition.
However, despite these health problems Talitha was originally told she had not qualified for the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) and DLA benefits.
Talitha’s mother and full-time carer Deborah said the family have been under huge amounts of stress since the benefits were refused and she is “disgusted by the lack of compassion” shown for her 17-year-old.
In September 2018 the family were shocked when Talitha’s PIP claim had been rejected, and subsequently resubmitted the application for reconsideration.
But, just last Friday (January 11) the McClenahan’s received the devastating news from the Department for Communities (DfC) that they were “unable to change the original decision”.
“We were told the original application was unsuccessful because the forms were in late,” explained Deborah. “The forms were due in at the end of August but Talitha was acutely ill at that time, she needed IV fluids and antibiotics and was hospitalised, so this delayed the forms being sent until early September.
“After the claim was rejected, I was speaking with someone from the PIP helpline who said they would resubmit the forms without needing any further information.”
However, on November 5, 2018 the family received a devastating letter from the DfC informing them that Talitha’s DLA had been stopped as well as her PIP claim being refused. On top of this, Deborah’s Carers Allowance had also been stopped.
The late submission of the application and lack of additional information explaining its delay was cited as the reason for the refusal.
“The medical information was sent in the original claim and at no point was I ever asked to supply other information in regards to the late submission,” Deborah continued.
“I could’ve contacted the South West Hospital to supply documents if I had’ve been asked to.”
This money made a huge difference to the family who used it buy sensory equipment and fund trips away for the teenager.
“With a future as uncertain as Talitha’s we want to make sure she has the best quality of life, she loves W5 especially the bowling, so we would use the money to fund little trips like this,” said Deborah.
After posting her daughter’s story on social media, the mother of seven said she was “staggered” by the huge reaction it generated, with a Belfast-based solicitors firm even offering to take on the case for free.
Deborah received thousands of messages from people sharing their similar stories.
“I had no idea the system was so bad, some families have been going through years of legal battles, fighting to get the benefits they deserve. This is an added stress they don’t need given what is already going on in their lives,” said Deborah.
“The DfC are telling me that this is an isolated incident but I feel Talitha’s story is only a small indicator of the larger problem that many others are experiencing.
“There is something fundamentally wrong with this system.”
Ulster Unionist Councillor Bert Wilson said the decision not to award PIP to the disabled Tyrone teenager was one of the most “heartless” he has ever witnessed.
“In all my time in elected politics I have not came across a more deserving case for support that has been refused,” said Cllr Wlison.
“There needs to be a much wider review of the Personal Independence Payment structure, there are major failings in the configuration of this benefit when people like Talitha Grace are turned down and rejected by the system.”
Although Talitha’s DLA is set to be reinstated immediately, and all missed payments backdated, Deborah has yet to receive clarification on whether her Carer’s Allowance will be also be reinstated or confirmation that Talitha will be awarded PIP.
A spokesperson for the DfC said, “While we cannot comment on individual cases, the Department have been in contact with the family to have the concerns addressed.”