Aftermath of a scandal: Winterbourne View, Panorama, and my family’s fears

I avoided watching the Panorama documentary on the Winterbourne View private hospital when it aired – my husband sat through it, but I couldn’t bring myself to. As we are parents of a child with a learning disability, inevitably, when the Winterbourne View scandal broke, both of us were struck by the same fear: ‘What if that were to happen to our son?’

When our daughter caught a glimpse of a recent TV report about the trial and conviction of a number of the former workers from Winterbourne View, and picked up the gist of what was going on, she was horrified – I mean real horror, the sort you see represented in films when a malevolent stalker breaks into the family home, intent on harm.

I think (hope) we were able to reassure her. Perhaps it is a measure of how kindly our boy has been treated at school, by professionals and by the community around us that she was so profoundly shocked by the idea that anyone would behave in that way to people who had similar difficulties to her brother.

But can we really feel confident that our son is safe from the danger of ill-treatment at some Winterbourne View hell of the future? I think not. And it’s no good thinking ‘over my dead body!’ Now that I’ve finally brought myself to watch bits of the original Panorama documentary, and the follow-up, still available here on the BBC iPlayer, I can see how little control families have over what happens to their loved ones, who, it seems, can be whisked away to the other end of the country at a moment’s notice. Interesting how this seems to have happened on a couple of occasions when concerns about care had been flagged up.

Who could forget Simon Tovey, the affectionate, bear-hugging chap who was bullied and ill-treated at Winterbourne View? His mother, Ann Earley, describes here the guilt she felt over what happened to him. But the Panorama documentary shows what Simon Tovey’s family was up against: a cruel, senseless, but all-powerful system that, faced with a request for an extra £600 a week to pay for the care Simon needed at a local care home, ultimately sent him off, via another care home, to Winterbourne View – for years on end.

Before a decision was made to take Simon out of the local care home, he was assessed by doctors – but in a hospital environment, and, Ann Earley says in the Panorama documentary, when she questioned this, she was told that if she didn’t agree, Simon would be sectioned.

Now Simon’s back at that local care home, near his family, and this is costing £1,400 a week LESS than Winterbourne View.

Here are some more interesting numbers. A placement at Winterbourne View cost £3,500 a week. Yes, that’s right, £3,500 a week… for what? Staff were paid on average £16,000 a year. The undercover reporter, Joe Casey, who filmed the abuse at Winterbourne View, was paid around £303 a week for 12-hour daily shifts. According to my calculations, that would have covered 11 members of staff for each person placed in the hospital.

Where did all that money go? And why is it acceptable to lavish taxpayer money on poorly regulated private companies at a time when the government is determined to cut back on the relatively meagre sums that go directly to disabled people or their families?

What about the people in charge, those higher up the organisation that owned and operated Winterbourne View? This 2011 article in Community Care about the management structure of Castlebeck makes interesting reading.

So what about Castlebeck now? According to its website, it’s ‘following a wide ranging framework of change’, and ‘The safety and well-being of the people who use our services remains our top priority.’ So that’s all right then.

As for those former Winterbourne View workers who have been sentenced… We can only hope that they will change their attitudes and the way they behave, and won’t find fresh victims to target in prison. According to this research by the Prison Reform Trust, around 8% of general population has a learning disability or borderline learning disability, and this rises to around 32% in the prison population.

Here’s what the National Autistic Society has to say about the aftermath of Winterbourne View: ‘Far too many people with autism are sent away to assessment and treatment units, and other institutional settings, which are often miles away from their homes and families.’ It believes the Government must act to stop

  • poor commissioning
  • lack of training of staff
  • lack of regard for human rights and poor safeguarding procedures
  • inflexible funding arrangements

Yes. A thousand times yes. The system needs to change. But even that won’t be enough to rid us of the fear that one day, our affectionate, placid, but vulnerable son will fall victim to the sort of ill-treatment that Joe Casey caught on camera at Winterbourne View.