Panorama programmes have a reputation for shocking audiences. Last nights’s programme, ‘Undercover care’ was no exception. It told the story of systematic abuse in a residential care home for people with learning disabilities through graphic, disturbing footage, secretly filmed. Restraint of the ‘patients’ included a routine called ‘kissing the carpet’, in which vulnerable young disabled adults were pinned to the floor, sometimes under a chair, with their hands pinned under the feet of a support worker. The programme reported weeks when 24 such restraints took place – when one would have been shocking enough on its own. Professor Jim Mansell, one of the UK’s authorities on caring for people with learning disabilities and author of numerous reports and studies, was interviewed on the programme. He described the pattern of abuse as one he recognised - in which a senior long serving unqualified member of staff creates the model for others to follow, and no-one dares to challenge or report such abuse to the outside world.
I found this programme particularly shocking in part because I worked as a speech and language therapist with people with learning disabilities in the 1980s. At that time, institutional care was still common and stories of abuse were also widely reported in the press – although without the benefit of clever hidden cameras. I vigorously supported the campaign to close these long stay hospitals, many of which I had visited as part of a three year research study. Thankfully, almost all these large institutions had gone by the mid 1990s, replaced by smaller, more home-like residential facilities, closer to communities and families, more accessible to visitors, more transparent in their management.
But still the abuse continues. The Panorama programme has already led to a series of apologies, suspensions and soul searching. For me, it highlights yet again the importance of regulating individuals as well as institutions. On the spot inspections of care homes will only go so far in uncovering systematic abuse, because it can only ever be periodic inspection, whether unannounced or not. Castlebeck’s home had been inspected three times in the previous 2 years and there was ‘no evidence of systematic abuse’. We need to have regulation of all those employed in the care of vulnerable people, not just those whose qualifications give them more responsibility. We need a system which makes raising concerns about colleagues clear, simple and decisive and acceptable. We do not have a mandatory system of regulation for support workers in England. I look forward to the time when we do.
Anna van der Gaag