Just over a year ago a Panorama expose of abuse of people with learning disabilities at an institution called Winterbourne View was screened, creating shockwaves in the social care sector and the wider public. At the time, we wrote that “if the country simply moves onto the next news story without doing something to tackle the underlying causes of the mistreatment of people with disabilities, then it will be another tragedy to add to the list.”
Yesterday, the long prosecution of the criminals involved was concluded with the last of 11 people accused of maltreating five patients at a private hospital pleading guilty. Sentencing will follow.
Seeing justice done is of course important when it comes to the deliberate abuse of people who are vulnerable, by the very people supposed to care for them. However, it is even more vital that we examine exactly how Winterbourne View happened, and what failures occurred in the system which is designed to protect vulnerable people.Even more importantly, we must ensure that the system is fixed, so that this doesn’t happen again.
Firstly, how did it happen? A “serious case review” of Winterbourne View was commissioned by South Gloucestershire Council shortly after the Panorama revelations: its new report details a catalogue of failures on behalf of all the agencies involved. For example, staff training was extremely inadequate, largely focusing on restraint methods, and staff turnover was high: over the course of five years, nearly 400 members of staff worked at Winterbourne View.
Family members initially described their impressions of Winterbourne as positive, but this soon changed as they were denied access to their relatives’ rooms and were made to conduct visits in shared areas of the hospital. Some reported being distressed that their visits were monitored. Some family members were alarmed by the deteriorating behaviour of their relatives and the frequent use of restraint and medication. Yet, despite a whistleblower alerting the Care Quality Commission to problems at Winterbourne View, they failed to act decisively.
Secondly, how do we prevent it happening again? We worked with fellow disability charities the Challenging Behaviour Foundation and Mencap on their new report – “Out of Sight”. This extremely powerful and engaging report details serious incidences reported by families of other abuses,including physical assault, sexual abuse, withdrawal of food and water and the overuse of restraint. It demonstrates that there is serious systemic failure in the care of people with learning disabilities, with hundreds being sent away to institutions, often many miles from home, where they are at risk of neglect and abuse.
“Out of Sight” also demands that the Government takes action. The Government recently published its interim review into Winterbourne View. Whilst the vision is good, change will not happen unless there is a strong, clear action plan. These scandals have happened repeatedly over the last 30 years and every time the social care sector and the Government has sworn “never again”. Now we need to take bold, urgent steps to ensure this really is the case and that the horrific catalogue of abuse at Winterbourne View is never repeated.
We, along with the Challenging Behaviour Foundation, Mencap, the National Autistic Society and many other disability charities, call on the Government to commit to the closure of large institutions like Winterbourne View and the development of appropriate local services in its final Winterbourne review in Autumn.
If you would like to read the full report, or want to take action and let your MP know about your concern over how people with learning disabilities are treated in institutions, please visit the Mencap campaigns page established to help you do it simply and effectively– click here.
Jaime Gill, head of press and public affairs, United Response