Anna’s Blog – Whorlton Hall

Anna’s Blog – Whorlton Hall

In her blog this week, Creative Support’s CEO Anna Lunts writes about the horrors exposed at Whorlton Hall.

I’ve worked in the care sector since the early 1980s and I thought there was little that could shock me. But the latest Panarama on the appalling treatment of people with a learning disability in Whorlton Hall did just that.

It’s eight years since an under-cover BBC investigation exposed abuse at Winterbourne View and again the BBC have uncovered the horrors at Whorlton Hall. It does beg the question ‘how long would this cruel regime have continued without the BBC investigation?’

We were promised Winterbourne View would never happen again, yet here we are watching abuse equally, if not more, shocking.

Like Winterbourne View a team of bullying, cruel and antagonistic care workers had been allowed to flourish and take control. As Professor Glenis Murphy, a leading expert in autism and learning disability says, they used ‘shocking language’ and created a ‘deviant culture.’

The support staff had without doubt created a deviant culture. They mocked and taunted, swore, antagonised and used sexually explicit and inappropriate language. They escalated situations which, anyone could see, could easily have been avoided. They used the patients as their play-things, to amuse and entertain. As the undercover reporter commented, ‘there was nothing therapeutic about this place.’

The support workers involved are a vindictive and nasty bunch. Training may have helped but how much training do you need to recognise when someone is in extreme distress. I make no excuses for the cruel behaviour of the support workers but I’ve been asking myself what were the senior staff and the visiting professionals doing? Did they not notice the drab environment and the toxic culture?

At the time of the Winterbourne View scandal there were 3,400 patients in hospital settings across the country. We were promised that people would be moved into more appropriate care within the community over a two year period but as people have been moved out others have been moved in. Now there are 2,300 people in specialist units. While the units continue to exist, so too will the abuse.

People need to live close to family and friends, not sent hundreds of miles away. The anguish of Alex’s parents when they were shown how she had become the target of this horrific level of taunting and abuse was hard to watch. They said they felt betrayed as support workers created a caring façade whenever they travelled the 320 miles to visit their daughter.

The Government seems to have given up on finding alternatives. They do exist and people with complex needs can live very happily in small domestic settings with carefully planned personalised support. A home they can call their own where they have friends, pursue interests and have the life they deserve. We run a number of these very successful services. They are a vital element in ensuring the transparency needed to help prevent institutionalised abuse.

It is not necessarily about the amount of funding, either – hospital placements cost several thousand pounds a week per patient and because individuals are isolated from their family and friends the placements tend to last much longer than they should do. In a supported living environment, close to home, people have access to informal support from family and friends and have far greater opportunity to become more independent.

Visiting professionals also have a huge role to play in exposing abuse. It’s hard to imagine how they could not know what was happening at Winterbourne View or Whorlton Hall.

It’s all very well issuing apologies, sacking staff and initiating police investigations but unless we invest in a wholesale change of culture and commit to investing in alternative care Whorlston Hall will not be the last we hear of the systematic, institutionalised abuse of some of the most vulnerable in our society.

Sir Stephen Bubb, who chairs an NHS group to address the lack of progress since Winterbourne, says we should instigate an effective closure programme, establish a Charter of Rights for people with a learning disability and appoint an Independent Commissioner to help uphold those rights. That sounds like a good starting point along with a commitment to establishing properly funded independent supported living models within the community.