Blow hot and cold

Sarah Baalham on a new care worker’s dilemma about the dubious practice of a charismatic, popular and powerful manager

Several years ago, Alan Shaw,* the manager of a small privately run residential home for adults with learning difficulties, recruited a team of staff, none of them very assertive, all somewhat in awe of him. They all had personal problems, and Alan was always someone to whom they could turn. Many of the staff had lodged with him at times when they needed support. His methods of working with the residents were unconventional too, but often seemed effective.

Shaw took on one new member of staff, George Cullen,* who had been out of work for some time and needed the job. George quickly noticed that Alan came into the home and ate breakfast even on the days he wasn’t on shift. Susie Lewis,* another staff member, did Alan’s washing for him in the home’s washing machine. One day George was sure that Alan was wearing a sweatshirt that belonged to John, one of the residents. The next day, looking more closely, he was sure that Alan was wearing John’s socks. This all felt wrong to George but he wasn’t really sure why – after all, what harm did it do?

Some of John’s behaviour challenged the service. He was often unsettled when he arrived home from a stay with his family and would throw things around his bedroom and the kitchen. One day George arrived at work to find Alan in the car park with John. Alan had packed John’s bags and was putting them into his car. Alan was shouting at John, saying, “Do you want to leave? Is that what you want? Because if you don’t behave yourself, that’s what will happen.” John was distressed, begging Alan to let him stay and promising he would behave. Seeing George, Alan put his arm around John and took him back into the house, reassuring him that he could stay as long as he wanted.

John’s behaviour improved for a while, and he was quieter at home. The staff felt that Alan had been “cruel to be kind”, and
the change in John’s behaviour certainly made their working lives easier. George contacted me several weeks after this incident. He still couldn’t put his finger on what was wrong. “I’m no psychologist,” he said, “not like Alan, and I know that what he did changed John’s behaviour, but it just doesn’t feel right.”

At the time my local authority, like most others, had no particular policies or procedures for vulnerable adults, or any staff working specifically in this area. There was also no whistleblowing policy in the organisation George worked for. I talked with George about what we could do; for example, supporting John to make a complaint, or helping him to express his views with an independent advocate. We also discussed the different bodies regulating and inspecting residential homes at the time and the powers they had. George needed his job, and he was torn between keeping quiet and acting on his concerns. He decided to talk to some of his colleagues, those he felt might also have been feeling uneasy about Alan. A couple of members of staff agreed with George that perhaps things weren’t right, and together they approached Alan’s manager.

It seemed that their concerns were taken seriously, and the senior manager agreed to investigate. She called a meeting of the
staff group and asked what they thought of Alan. No one dared say anything. The staff, even those who had supported George, all denied having seen Alan take anything belonging to a resident or threaten John.

Nothing further happened, and George, disillusioned, left care work. John’s behaviour deteriorated again and he was moved
to a specialist mental health unit. We all know that abuse isn’t just about hitting someone or taking cash from their purse. Alan had made sure his staff were all dependent on him in one way or another – he was in a position of power over both the staff and the residents at the home and he abused that power. But of course this happened some time ago, and things are different now. Aren’t they? What would you do?

*Not their real names

Sarah Baalham is customer care manager at Suffolk Council


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