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.

Temple Grandin, autism and the power of early intervention

There’s an amazing video on the National Autistic Society website of Dr Temple Grandin giving a speech. The video is amazing not just because of what she has to say, but the fact that she can say it at all.

Most of us would be pretty scared of addressing a hall full of people, but here is someone who is autistic, for whom communication is particularly challenging, speaking in public at length, fluently and lucidly and with such authority… She’s incredibly impressive.  And it just goes to show what someone with autism can achieve with the right kind of support early on.

You can find the video of Temple Grandin’s speech, and some more about her, on the National Autistic Society website.

Temple Grandin: early encouragement, later success

Temple Grandin didn’t speak  until she was three and a half, and when she was diagnosed her parents were advised to put her in an institution. They didn’t. They found a speech therapist for her. A childcarer played endless games with her and her sister. In the speech recorded in the video, which took place in June this year in Reading, she says that one-to-one attention is what autistic children need in order to learn.

She gives some insights into what it’s like to live with the sensory perception difficulties that often go with autism: the pixellated vision, the challenges of trying to interpret other people’s apparently super-speedy speech. She also makes the point that autistic children need to be stretched, and looks back to her own fear about going to stay on her aunt’s cattle ranch.

Encouraged to go by her mother, she went, loved it, and ended up forging a career as a designer of livestock-handling equipment, and becoming one of the best-known people with autism in the world. I haven’t seen the film about her (Temple Grandin) starring Claire Danes, but I want to – her story is so inspiring, and Claire Danes is such a good actress, it should make for a great film.

Changes to the system for children with SEN: cost-cutting masquerading as efficiency?

But what about all the children with special educational needs (SEN) who don’t get that intensive help early on? We know that early intervention makes a big difference, but the system for allocating resources to children with SEN in the UK seems to be designed to slow up access to help.

Applying for a statement is a long and bureaucratic process; evidence of need needs to be absolutely watertight, and gathered over time. But once you’ve got a statement, it is legally binding; the level of help identified in the statement has to be provided.

Now the government proposes to sweep the system away. It says it wants to make things better, but there are so many unanswered questions. Will whatever replaces statements also be legally binding?

Ofsted seems to have decided that too many children are labelled as having SEN. How did it decide? Did it ask the parents? And if children need help, they need help, don’t they, regardless of why? Are they going to get it? Or is this really just another cost-cutting exercise, masquerading as improved efficiency?