Learning difficulties residential home scandals: the inside story and lessons from Longcare and Cornwall

Grant Wetherall went undercover to expose abuse in a home for people with learning difficulties in 1995. But in the light of last year’s scandal in Cornwall, he doubts whether recommendations from earlier inquiries have made any difference

Last year’s abuse scandal uncovered in services run by the Cornwall Partnership NHS Trust was disturbing and shocking. However, it wasn’t the first time that institutional abuse of people with learning difficulties proved to be the social care story of the year.

The Cornwall findings have strong echoes with the recent past: namely the Ely Hospital Inquiry (1968-9) and the Longcare Inquiry (1998), which looked into abuse in two private care homes (owned by Longcare Ltd) in Stoke Poges,  Buckinghamshire, between 1983 and 1993.

Ely Hospital in Cardiff, which had been founded in 1862 as a Poor Law Industrial School for Orphaned Children, became a work house in 1903 and then a long-stay NHS hospital in 1948. Despite the Idiots Act 1888 and the Inquiry into the Care of the Feeble Minded 1904, people were being admitted even in the 1960s with medical diagnoses of “imbecile” and “idiot”.

Indeed, the inquiry revealed that no staff training had taken place at Ely for more than 10 years: the last recorded was in the 1950s when a charge nurse attended a course on the role of nursing in a nuclear war. And he no longer worked there.

The hospital was isolated from the mainstream (as were the Longcare and Cornwall homes) and, coupled with such a stagnation of thinking, abuse prospered. The allegations that led to the inquiry were made by a nursing assistant and were to prove familiar in both subsequent scandals. They included cruel treatment, verbal abuse, beatings, pilfering of food, clothing and other items, indifference to complaints, lack of medical care, and medication used to sedate residents.

Charge nurse John Edwards ordered a number of Ely patients to strip for a bath, which he administered by hosing them down with cold water. This was a popular punishment at the Longcare homes. Thankfully, Ely compelled policy changes and altered the way government viewed long-stay institutions. It led to the 1971  white paper Better Services for the Mentally Handicapped and introduced the regular visiting and inspection of such services.

Despite this raised profile, abuse of people with learning difficulties in institutions resurfaced at Longcare. This time the neglect, physical abuse and torture were  joined by sexual abuse and rape: residents were buggered and used in sex videos with animals.

In 1995, my final year at university, I was  on placement with Ealing Mencap in west London. As a result of a newspaper article alleging physical and sexual abuse, I went “undercover” as an independent advocate to find out what was happening to six Ealing residents placed in the Longcare homes.

I drove down the long driveway in the grounds of Stoke Place House, a magnificent, majestic Victorian building with ornate pillars by the front door. After pushing the doorbell several times I decided to go in as nobody came. While waiting and walking around the house unchallenged for more than an hour, I looked for a member of staff. Only then did I get a response. I said I was from Ealing Citizen Advocacy and was there to take Anne* out for the day. I was allowed to take Anne (whom I had never met before) out of the house with no ID. Nor did anyone challenge me or telephone my agency to check me out. Anne seemed to be very disturbed and anxious. I noticed a man with grey hair in the foyer whom I later recognised to be the owner of Longcare, Gordon Rowe.

As we drove away, Anne became increasingly anxious; she kept saying, “I’m a naughty girl, I’m a naughty girl”. Throughout the day she kept hitting herself, pulling her hair and repeating, “You are a naughty girl”. After lunch she said to me “Gordon is a naughty man, he hurt me, but he says ‘nice’. ” On our return, Anne immediately hugged the ornate pillars outside the home refusing to let go. She then screamed, “No go in, no go in”. After a while I managed to calm her down. On entering the foyer Anne became distressed again. She started to cry and then hit herself. At this point one of the managers came out of the office and said: “It’s always the same. When you people take them out you bring them back upset.”

I then noticed Rowe again. He had promised social services and police that he would not enter the house while the allegations were being investigated. I told the police. They interviewed eight staff who all said they were prepared to stand in court and say that the man I recognised was not Rowe, but a lookalike booked to entertain the residents for the day!

Over the next few days other Ealing residents started to tell me about the abuse they had suffered at the hands of Rowe and others. Ealing Social Services, along with Buckinghamshire Registration and Inspection (R&I) Unit and police agreed to move all six residents out in a covert operation on the following Monday morning.

I met several social workers in the golf club car park just down the road from the home. The police were also briefed and waiting. We had a legal letter authorising us to take away the six Ealing residents. When we entered the home the management became aggressive, abusive and threatening. Staff appeared from all directions to stop us, but when we informed them that police were waiting around the corner they backed off. We collected the residents and their belongings and took them to their new homes.

However, because Buckinghamshire R&I Unit resisted closing the homes not all other residents were moved out as expected. Nearly all placing authorities took the misguided line that, if Buckinghamshire wouldn’t move its residents, the residents must therefore be safe.

The reason for not closing the homes rested on the fear of the costs of being sued. The decision was also rooted in advice given to Clwyd Council over the Bryn Alyn children’s home that, despite uncovering serious abuse, the council “could risk losing its insurance cover if it released a report in which negligence was admitted”. The council also “had a legal duty (duty in trust) towards its electors and taxpayers who were first and foremost to look at its financial interests”. So Buckinghamshire had acted “legally”.

Nonetheless, those financial interests were later in shreds. In October 2003, the survivors were awarded more than £1m compensation; the police costs totalled £2.9m, and the costs to the health trusts and social services departments were an extra £1.9m a year.

Although criminal charges were brought, Rowe committed suicide a week before the month-long trial at Kingston Crown Court, and many residents and parents felt cheated by his departure. However, worse were the sentences handed down. Rowe’s wife, Angela, was sent to prison for two and a half years, while two former staff, Lorraine Field and Desmond Tully, received an 18- month jail sentence and a £750 fine respectively.

This was, at the time, the maximum sentence for abusing a disabled adult. The Longcare Inquiry made 95 recommendations, three of which, in part, led to the introduction of the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 (the whistle-blowing act), the Youth Justice and Criminal Justice Act 1999 (covering achieving best evidence) and the Sexual Offences Act 2003.

However, two significant recommendations have failed to make the desired impact. Although some local authorities are doing a sterling job appointing independent advocates for residents, generally the picture is bleak.

Similarly, little “pictorial or other advice” is being developed “for residents with learning difficulties explaining ‘complaint’ and what to do if they are unhappy or unsure about behaviour they experience”.

There is an urgent need for staff to be trained in communication systems such as Makaton, which has also developed an excellent abuse protection communication system. Indeed, you could argue that the failure of these recommendations  ontributed to the continuation of the Cornwall abuse. Also, the same lack of urgency in response from local authorities and police when abuse allegations first surfaced in Buckinghamshire was repeated in Cornwall.

In fewer than 10 years have we really failed to learn the lessons of Longcare (and before that Ely)?

Many professionals I meet are unaware of the case, let alone what we can learn to prevent and expose institutional abuse.

How long before we forget Cornwall? And, once forgotten, will it take another scandal to jolt our memory?

*Not her real name

Grant Wetherall is team manager, Homefirst Community & Social Services Trust, Magherafelt Family Centre, Northern Ireland. To contact him about this article go to www.signsimply.com

This article appeared in the 11th January issue under the headline “What was it all for?”


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