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‘I was forced back to work while my son was still on life support’

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Lennie Harrison weighed just 1lb when he was born 16 weeks premature and spent three months fighting for his life on an intensive care unit.

During his time on a special baby unit little Lennie suffered two heart attacks, a brain bleed, an almost deadly fungal sepsis infection, as well as having multiple operations on his heart and eyes.

“We genuinely didn’t know whether he was going to live or die, you could be told he’s had a really good night and he’s done well and literally half an hour later they are battling to save him,” says Lennie’s dad Dean.

Despite this Dean, a police officer at the time, was expected back on the streets of London after his statuary two weeks of paternity leave had ended. He applied for additional compassionate leave but his request was rejected.

“You’re under pressure, you have to think on your feet and you’re dealing with violent people. Your mind has to be clear and calm and I said to him [Dean’s commanding officer] that having the weight of not knowing whether my son is going to live or die, it just isn’t right for me to go back out on the streets.”

Eventually Dean was left with no choice but to go on sick leave with stress. This could have ruined his chances of promotion in a career he had dreamed of since he was a boy, however it was the only option left available to him that meant he could be by his family’s side when they needed him most.

“Once you’ve got stress written on your sick report that can cause problems whether it be for promotion or moving into another role. I just felt really disappointed; I don’t think I can go through anything like that ever again” says 40-year-old Dean from Tadworth, Surrey.

Five years on from Dean’s ordeal mums and dads of premature babies up and down the country are still struggling with paternity leave. However, that could be set to change. During yesterday’s PMQ’s the Prime Minister announced the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is conducting a ‘short, focused internal review’ of current parental leave legislation. The findings of the review were expected in January this year.

As it currently stands parents of premature babies are only entitled to the standard leave of two weeks for dads and up to one year for mums.

This means that some dads, such as Gavin Newlands MP, have to use their leave tactically to make sure they are by their family’s side when they need it most. Gavin returned to work the day after his daughter was born prematurely and put into an ICU so that he could help his wife once she returned from hospital as she had a difficult birth.

However, Gavin was one of the lucky ones. His boss at the time had been through the same thing and granted him the additional leave he needed to support his family.

“it shouldn’t be up to the kindness and generosity of an a boss” Says the SNP MP for Renfrewshire North”

Catriona Ogilvy from South London is a mother to two boys, Samuel and Jack, both born prematurely. She was threatened with letters from her employer’s HR department when she had to take to additional leave due to her son’s ongoing health needs after leaving hospital. Her employers recommend that other members of her family care for her son while he was critically ill in hospital so she could be at work.

Her experiences of maternity leave as the mother of a premature children lead to her setting up her charity The Smallest Things, which is working with the government on the review.

Catriona set up her Employer With A Heart Charter where employers grant an additional day of paid leave to mums and dads for every day their child spends on a neonatal unit.

“It doesn’t seem right that by the time a parent brings their baby home from hospital they’ve used up weeks and months of parental leave and that they are then on unpaid leave and really struggling to make ends meet,” Catriona says.

Having a baby on a neonatal unit puts a huge financial burden on families with the average stay in a neonatal intensive care unit estimated to cost £2,500, but in many cases the cost can be much higher.

“We more or less dropped £1,400 a month, we ended up taking out credit cards, taking out loans, borrowing from family because we were playing catch-up the whole time,” Dean says.

Catriona says this extended paid leave wouldn’t just relieve some of the huge financial strain on families but also give them the time to recover from the emotional and mental trauma of having a premature baby.

She will also be advising the government to look into funding for specialised mental health counselling for the families of premature babies, which currently is only available in Scotland.

“The mental health needs of parents following neonatal intensive care can’t just be put into the box of post-natal depression or anxiety it really is a very interlinked, very complex set of mental health needs,” Catriona explains.

David Linden, MP for Glasgow East, is one of many Scottish parents who has taken up specialised counselling following a premature birth. His daughter Jessica is still on an oxygen machine after being born premature late last year.

The father of two is the chair of the Neonatal All Parliamentary Group, which campaigns for better legislation for families with children in neonatal care. He is also the one who posed the question to the PM yesterday about the government’s commitment to reviewing legislation.

He claims the proposed changes to legislation could be decided by a committee in just 15 minutes.

“What we just need the government to do is to have that last push to ensure these families get the support they deserve,” adds SNP party whip David.

However, this small legislation change could transform the lives of families with babies in neonatal wards.

“There are thousands of families visiting babies in neonatal wards up right now, using up their paternity leave. There are dads back at work while their children are on life support in incubators, if government made the change now then that could change overnight for those families,” Catriona says.

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