Vulnerable Adults In the Care System – Are They Protected?
In May 2019 BBC Panorama broadcast a second undercover documentary exposing the treatment received by vulnerable adults from care staff and this time it looked at Whorlton Hall Hospital in County Durham. Filming showed staff at the hospital intimidating, mocking and restraining patients with learning disabilities and autism. This made for shocking viewing and rightly caused concern for the lack of care being provided.
Has there been any positive change since the Winterbourne exposé?
This documentary follows on from a previous BBC Panorama broadcast in 2011 at Winterbourne View Care Home. There was again outrage when this hit the public screens.
In the year following the 2011 screening, there was a sharp rise in reports of abuse of vulnerable adults by 21,000, taking the total reports to 112,000. Of the 83,500 incidents that were fully investigated, published records confirm 41% were found to be either substantiated or partially substantiated. Following Panorama’s exposé the press reported procedures would change with regard to safeguarding of vulnerable adults within the care of the NHS and local authorities.
What legislative changes were effected after Winterbourne?
Fast forward 7 years and where are we now?
The Care Act 2014 (“the Act”) was introduced to implement safeguarding for vulnerable adults. The Act created a legal responsibility for the integration between health and local authorities to protect such individuals. The aim of the Act was to attempt to prevent any form of abuse taking place and to put in place a mechanism for enquiries to take place into incidents where risks were identified or allegations were made. These safeguarding measures were intended to put action plans into place to investigate allegations of abuse and bring different bodies together to protect the said individual. Safeguarding was implemented to protect from physical, sexual and psychological abuse.
The definition of an adult at risk is “any person who is aged 18 years or over and at risk of abuse or neglect because of their needs for care or support”. Many vulnerable adults also fall under the Mental Health Act 2007. Guidelines have been produced elaborating on behaviours and actions which would be deemed as abuse such as physical slapping, pushing, force feeding and forcing or restricting taking of medication. Whistleblowers are given protection under the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1988 that they will not be exposed for raising concerns.
Any abuse causes significant psychological damage and ruins lives, whether that is physical, mental or sexual abuse. It often takes a survivor many years to disclose what happened to them if they are even able to communicate this when you factor in that the individuals affected by this scandal are already deemed vulnerable due to their learning difficulties. Research has indicated that a vulnerable adult is four times more likely to be abused.
The role of undercover reporting in exposing abuse scandals
The BBC Panorama undercover documentary has resulted in 16 employees being suspended and a police investigation is now commencing.
The Care Quality Commission (CQC) gave Whorlton Hall a good rating after inspecting it in 2017, however they have now confirmed that on that occasion they did not pick up on the abuse and apologised to those involved. He abuse only came to light when a reporter went undercover. It begs the question therefore how long these patients had been suffering from this abuse before it was discovered or reported.
In January 2019 a Phoenix, USA news report went viral regarding a woman in a vegetative state in a care facility since 2002, who became pregnant and gave birth to a healthy child. The abuse was only discovered when the patient gave birth and the abuser was only identified after DNA samples were taken from all of the staff. The doctor for the centre immediately resigned having missed the pregnancy. Such headlines shock the world but how many cases are only exposed as a result of shocking incidents like this or undercover investigations?
Abusers often use their position of authority, power and trust to manipulate and abuse those under their care. They often target individuals who they can isolate from their friends and family. This is especially troubling when many vulnerable adults and children may have no realisation that what is happening to them is wrong. Sadly many survivors of abuse struggle to communicate what has happened to them and often don’t know who they can disclose their experiences to.
Despite the fact that we, as a society, now have much more knowledge and understanding of the effects of abuse, documentaries such as that about Whorlton Hall Hospital still shock us when we realise this is still going on in the NHS or local authorities.
It is clear that there is still much to be done to protect vulnerable adults and I wait to see how this is approached as the Government has clearly still not learned from and acted upon the failings from the Winterbourne View Care Home scandal in 2011.
Bolt Burdon Kemp is acting for a number of vulnerable victims of abuse.