Watching Panorama on Monday night was for me, as for everyone I think who saw It, a distressing experience. Witnessing people demonstrate such scant regard for a fellow human being’s dignity, comfort and feelings makes us all shake our heads in horror. And then we see an actual assault committed by a strong young man on a defenceless frail person which moves us to outrage and calls to bring back the gallows (or so many on Twitter seem to be advocating).
This is not the first time the hidden camera has exposed abuse and I guarantee it won’t be the last. Each time it happens enquiries are opened, people are sacked, sometimes prosecuted, fingers are pointed and recommendations are made by sagely wise people who demand that this must never be allowed to happen again. And then of course it does. Again and again.
We should ask ourselves a few searching questions. Is it reasonable to expect that this sort of thing should never happen? After all it happens in all areas of our society. Does it only happen in Care Homes? Maybe add in police stations, hospitals, children’s homes, schools? Of course it doesn't. Disrespect, neglect and outright harm also happen within our own homes and our communities. Our neighbourhoods are full of isolated, frail folk stuck inside their four walls fearing what the next day will bring. Most of us walk on by, protected by the comfort of 'not knowing' and therefore not having to ask.
As the 'benefit reform' and budget cuts begin to kick in, how many vulnerable children or disabled people are going to be 'neglected' and left unprotected? Will we see hidden camera exposes of their plight? How many inadequately supported people will become victims of the casual abuse and neglect of their own communities?
Whilst watching the programme I was acutely conscious of my daily responsibility as a provider of care services. In my role I oversee the operation of care homes, retirement villages, independent living services to hundreds of vulnerable people. I know that I and my management team and our 500 care staff are deeply ashamed and angry at the behaviour of those individuals, members of our profession. I know that my staff work incredibly hard and care a great deal for the people they are serving. But can we, hand on heart, guarantee that nothing like this could ever happen in our services? No we can't.
We are human and frail and we can easily, all of us, let our normal feelings of compassion and empathy slip. Psychological experiments, most famously Stanford University alerted us to this. In no way should this be an excuse for the behaviour of abusers but we can reduce the risk of this type of behaviour by really understanding how we behave as human beings. And for those who insist that they would never behave in any other manner than exemplary, "virtue never tested is no virtue at all" is what I might kindly suggest.
So, another question. Are our expectations of care workers fair? Do we as a society allow the right, safe environment and culture to exist that enables empathetic care to be provided?
If care is your work it is undervalued and poorly paid. You are repeatedly told that everything must be written down ("If it's not written down it didn't happen" – goes the mantra). You spend hours in 'training' being tutored in the mysteries of risk analysis, risk assessment, safeguarding, outcome measures, evidence-based practice. The people for whom you are 'caring' for need to be assessed, care-planned, risk-assessed, safe-guarded. If something goes wrong you are immediately exposed and held to account. Mistakes are often framed as 'neglect' or even 'abuse' when in fact they are mainly mistakes. You may be a very caring, kind person working in a good kind care home but you only every see yourself represented negatively.
Ash Court was 'compliant' it had all the risk assessments, policies, protocols, training, induction, supervision, etc in place, and none of that prevented the actions of individual members of staff behind closed doors? Why? Because paper can't do that.
Is this really the way to let flourish a relationship that fosters empathy, sympathy, compassion and respect. Or is it a system that depersonalises and victimises?
As someone who works in this sector you can often feel inhibited from joining in the debate following an abuse scandal, always aware of your own potential frailty. But if care providers don't get engaged, the system is unlikely to change. At JRHT we are working with our colleagues in the JRF and the sector to look again at the whole system of risk and regulation in care homes. Is the framework around care working? How do we make care homes more open, cherished, supported and valued – because if we want fewer Panoramas, that's what we need to do. It's a human business. Please forgive me if I am sounding like an apologist, I am not. I firmly condemn the behaviour so graphically shown on last night's TV. But another 'review', 'report' and set of 'recommendations' won't change a thing. It's time for a revolution.