Thursday , 18 April 2024
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People with learning disabilities and autism are mistreated and brutalized. How long?

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Now think about the prospect of such stories piling up: by rights, you would expect some kind of tipping point. But in this case, the sheer number of scandals seems to somehow normalise them, so that even some of the most awful remain overlooked, even among people who think of themselves as progressive and socially concerned. We think we care, but our concern and empathy fall woefully short.

This is the very real story of over a decade of horror inflicted on learning-disabled and autistic people. Self-evidently, it is part of a much longer saga of cruelty, neglect and bigoted attitudes that goes back centuries. But this latest phase has a clear recent timeline, starting with the BBC’s exposure of hideous abuse at the privately run Winterbourne View hospital near Bristol in 2011 and the great outpouring of anger and official remorse that followed it, largely to no avail. Even more scandals have been revealed since then, traceable to a glaring lack of accountability, let alone any meaningful action.

The places where they have happened are scattered across the UK: Devon, Norfolk, Lincolnshire, Essex, County Antrim, Cardiff, Greater Manchester and more. Last week, the story reached another awful milestone, with the publication of a second official report triggered by what happened between 2018 and 2021 at three residential schools in and around Doncaster. They were run by the Hesley Group, which is owned by Antin Infrastructure, a multinational private equity group chiefly known for investing in gas pipelines. About 82% of the children concerned were autistic; 76% had a learning disability. Two-thirds of them were more than 50 miles away from their family home. Their families had presumably been lulled into agreeing to their placements with promises of nuanced and sensitive care; for each child, the local councils in charge of the relevant budgets had paid the Hesley Group about £250,000 a year.

The three homes had been closed by government inspectors in 2021, but it took longer for details of what had happened in them – which is now the subject of a criminal investigation by police – to be made public. In October 2022, an official review found that children had suffered “direct physical abuse” and “various forms of neglect”, and that staff “had seriously breached sexual boundaries”. Then, in January this year, documents leaked to the BBC shone more light on the horrors that lay behind such words. Vinegar had been poured into children’s open cuts. One child had been locked outside in freezing temperatures, while they were naked. Others were punched and kicked in the stomach, made to sit in cold baths and force-fed chilli flakes.

More recently, there have been further details of the abuse of adults and children at Hesley Group facilities, spanning 10 years. By way of a response, last week’s forensic and exhaustive report by the government’s child safeguarding practice review panel cited more of the Doncaster homes’ failings (staff, for example, shaved black girls’ heads, seemingly to avoid having to comb their hair), and laid bare a broken national system of care and education. It set out proposals for change including radically reformed inspections and oversight, and changes to the way staff are recruited and trained. One cold fact, however, shows how dysfunctional everything is: the Hesley Group – which insists that it has undergone a major restructuring and made senior management changes – still runs educational and supported living services for people with autism and learning disabilities.

The Doncaster story sits alongside the continuing scandal centred on children and adults trapped and mistreated in facilities classified as hospitals. Winterbourne View was a case in point; so was the story of Whorlton Hall in County Durham, which was broken by a BBC Panorama documentary in 2019, and is now the subject of an ongoing criminal trial. Only a month ago, Channel 4 aired a Dispatches programme that exposed the appalling treatment of young people with autism in hospitals and treatment centres across England – which included a hospital in Kent where 18 reports of sexual assault and 24 of rape were made to the police between 2020 and 2023, but no charges have yet been brought. We should never forget Connor Sparrowhawk, the autistic and learning-disabled young man who was the victim of failings relating to vital risk assessments and who drowned in a bath at an NHS care unit in 2013; it was subsequently discovered that the NHS trust concerned had failed to properly investigate the deaths of more than 1,000 patients with learning disabilities or mental health problems over a period of four years.

Every story is horrifically vivid: I have a 16-year-old son who has autism and learning disabilities, and when each new one emerges, it heightens a sharp and nagging anxiety about what might lie ahead. The failures behind the scandals, by contrast, are rooted in systems that are massively opaque. In the case of children’s homes and residential schools, the bodies responsible include Ofsted (which failed to intervene in the Doncaster case for three years, despite hundreds of complaints), local councils and a tangle of profit-making companies. When it comes to hospitals and mental health facilities, notwithstanding improved regulatory work by the Care Quality Commission, huge questions need to be asked about the NHS, more private providers and the commissioners who staff England’s new system of integrated care boards. In both sectors, neglect and abuse often highlights what people who work in this field call “closed cultures”: secretive, shut-off ways of working that sometimes attract people with the most twisted intentions.

Late last week I spoke to Pam Bebbington, one of the key people in an inspirational organisation called My Life My Choice. She is involved in “quality checks” of supported living facilities in Oxfordshire, “making sure people are safe and happy, and not overmedicated” – and such campaigns as Don’t Lock Us Away!, founded on the straightforward insistence that “we want to get people out of the hospitals, so they can live in their own places and have support there”.

She has a learning disability, and direct experience of being incarcerated in institutions where she was terrorised. In one facility dedicated to people with learning disabilities, she told me, she was “beaten up, kept in locked rooms and restrained: when they bend your arms behind your back, they sit on you, they stand on you – no one should have that done to them”.

These things happened to her about 30 years ago – which only makes those more recent scandals seem all the more abhorrent. “It’s getting worse and worse,” she said, “and nothing’s getting done.”

How, I wondered, would she sum up what needs to change? “Respect,” she said. “That’s a word we use all the time.” We chatted on, but those seven letters had done their work, crystallising what has been denied to so many people, opening the way to all those outrages and human catastrophes. As you read this, more will be happening, in darkened rooms and locked-up wards. Here, clearly, is hideous proof of enduring prejudices and blind spots, and the fact that all our modern talk about diversity, inclusion and human rights regularly collapses into nothing. How much longer?

John Harris is a Guardian columnist

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