Tearful parents feel 'absolute dread' as 'life saving' children's centre threatened with closure

Carmen Escalante-Callejo, Director of Moving Senses at Southmead Children's Centre
-Credit: (Image: Liverpool Echo)

"For our family, Moving Senses was life-saving. The thought of it closing fills me with dread. Absolute dread".

These are the words of Elsa Preston who is stood with ten other parents in the kitchen area of a children's centre in Whiston. They have all gathered here to explain how important Moving Senses is to their families and to campaign against its imminent closure.

The atmosphere is sombre and many parents become tearful as they begin to talk about the support on offer and how this centre has changed their lives. There is also anger and despair because Moving Senses have been given until August 31 by Knowsley Council to pack up their things, close their service and leave the building.

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The news was delivered to the parents straight away and their shock is palpable. Elsa said: "It's heart-breaking for both the parents and children."

Moving Senses operates from a Knowsley Council-owned building off Sherwood Drive, where they provide activities and respite care for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). The service supports 50 children and is described as a 'lifeline' to parents and families across Merseyside.

The service was founded seven years ago by Carmen Escalante-Callejo after working in childcare for a number of years. Carmen identified a need for more services and respite care for SEND children and their families and decided to start a project she could be proud of. If the testimonials given by parents are anything to go by, she has certainly achieved this.

Carmen made a deal with Knowsley Council to use the Southmead Children's Centre for their base of operations and they have been there for the last five years. However, earlier this month, the local authority informed Moving Senses their temporary license agreement would be terminated and they had until August 31 to vacate.

Carmen Escalante-Callejo, Director of Moving Senses at Southmead Children's Centre
Carmen Escalante-Callejo, Director of Moving Senses at Southmead Children's Centre -Credit:Liverpool Echo

The council said they had tried to work with Moving Senses to find an alternative space but these offers were refused and expanded on the tenancy issue in a statement which said: "The council has picked up the running costs of the building which are currently in the region of £85,000 per year. Moving Senses has appreciated the council’s support.

"Unfortunately, the building is in a very poor condition and would need major investment to be made fit for future use. All council services have already been moved out of the building, and we can’t allow service users to continue to operate out of a building in such a condition."

Carmen does not accept this characterisation and said the only viable option presented to Moving Senses was the use of a waste ground, wholly unsuitable to the charity's needs. She has asked the local authority to reconsider their plans and factor in the importance of Moving Senses to children and families in Knowsley - especially at a time when SEND services are stretched to the limit.

Parents of children at Moving Senses at Southmead Children's Centre
Parents of children at Moving Senses at Southmead Children's Centre -Credit:Liverpool Echo

Whatever the dispute, what is beyond doubt is the strength of feeling from the families who attend Southmead. They came together to start the campaign on a Sunday - the one day they can get four hours of respite care. The fact they sacrificed precious relief time to discuss the centre's impending closure is testament to the value they place on Moving Senses.

Hannah Larkin has three boys who visit Moving Senses. Her son Jack is ten-years-old and has Downs Syndrome and ADHD. He's also incontinent and non-verbal.

Hannah mentions this only to illustrate the complexity of Jack's needs and emphasise the importance of these needs being cared for and supported. She said: "Nothing is easy. No one helps with my kids. No one will even walk them to the shop around the corner.

"On Sundays, I drop off my kids with Carmen and the staff. I can leave them here once a week knowing they're safe.

"I used to be a nice person, but having to battle with services and the council to get Jack the help he needs has changed me. They should be ashamed of themselves."

The majority of the parents in the kitchen have been visiting Moving Senses for the last five years and they're quick to explain the importance of routine, structure and support for their children - many of whom have complex needs.

Parents, children and staff at Moving Senses in Southmead Children's Centre
Parents, children and staff at Moving Senses in Southmead Children's Centre -Credit:Liverpool Echo

Hayley Dooley's two children attend once a week and she sees the connection they have made with the physical space, the staff and the other children. Hayley said: "We would all be absolutely lost with Moving Senses.

"Routine is so important and for this to be taken away has a huge impact on everyone in our family.

"Four hours doesn't sound like much respite but it means everything to us. It's absolutely immense and it's something we all hold onto.

"Knowsley Council refer people to commissioned services but the places aren't there."

Responding to questions about what other services parents could access as an alternative to Moving Senses, the local authority said: "There is a range of support, services and activities for Knowsley children with special educational needs and/or disabilities through the Knowsley Local Offer."

However, Carmen was quick to clarify what she termed the 'inadequacy' of the council's response. She said: "The parents know there's no alternative provision because when they have looked for it, they've been told there's a two-year waiting list. The parents are rightly scared and do not know what to do."

Moving Senses in Southmead Children's Centre
Moving Senses in Southmead Children's Centre -Credit:Liverpool Echo

Knowsley Council added: "We are aware that there is a waiting list for short breaks in view of high demand."

There is a well documented shortage of SEND places across the social care spectrum as local authorities across England struggle to fund essential services in the wake of central government cuts. For Carmen and the parents this is more reason to protect successful SEND services where they have been established and the proposed closure of Southmead makes little sense.

One parent who wished not to be named said: "I am asking you to consider where these children will go if you close down Southmead?

"Please don't close Southmead and take away, not only the children's needs but those of the parents who can at least have some respite, even if it is only for a few hours."

This articulates the double impact Moving Senses have. They provide essential services and short stays for vulnerable children with complex needs, but they are also a lifeline to parents struggling under the pressure of immense responsibility. The prospect of losing this is why so many parents are upset about Moving Senses.

Moving Senses in Southmead Children's Centre
Moving Senses in Southmead Children's Centre -Credit:Liverpool Echo

Heather adopted her son, Max and was aware of his complex needs. She was later told if she hadn't adopted Max, he would probably have ended up in the care system. Heather was Max's last chance.

Heather struggles to tell her story as she remembers being at 'breaking point' when she met Carmen. Heather is very emotional at the thought of what's happening and, like many parents in the meeting room, begins to tear up. She said: "Moving Senses was that light at the end of the tunnel.

"Max has ADHD and he's autistic. He's a firecracker and has so much energy. It meant he was able to come here and be a child and be himself and be safe.

"I went on the council's website and contacted one service who promised they could look after Max for the whole day. He lasted 45 minutes before they called me to pick him up because they couldn't cope. Max has never been rejected like that at Moving Senses.

"I work at the hospital and if this place closes I will have to give up my job.

"I joke to my colleagues that coming to work is actually my break, so I can't even think about what's going to happen because the prospect of this place closing is too much to bear."

Moving Senses and families have started a campaign petition advocating for the saviour of Moving Senses and hope to persuade Knowsley Council to find a way to keep the service open at Southmead (or provide a suitable alternative location). The petition garnered over 1,000 signatures in 48 hours and you can find out more about it HERE.

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