Conservative MP Derek Conway hit the headlines last month for employing his sons as research assistants. When it later turned out that they had done little for their money, Conway was humiliatingly stripped of the Tory whip and may face a police inquiry. Conway’s behaviour hurt no one but himself and his family. While he may now be the butt of jokes, nepotism is no laughing matter in social care settings, where the resulting conflicts of interest can lead to bad practice being covered up and, at worst, abusive environments developing unchecked.
Laura* is all too aware of these types of closed environments. About 30 years ago, she had just graduated from university and was starting her first job in a home for adolescents with challenging behaviour.
Some staff at the home were in relationships and this created “an ethos of collusion”, says Laura. When she was bullied she felt she had nowhere to go: “I couldn’t talk to anybody,” she recalls. “There were some good people there but the culture was wrong. The intensity of working in a care home draws people together. There was an unhealthy atmosphere that felt incestuous. It felt like there were factions.”
Laura had no training or support during her year at the home and felt increasingly isolated and stressed about what she was expected to do.
“I was doing pindown [sitting on young people to restrain them],” she says. “I didn’t know it was abuse, but it didn’t feel right. You become sucked in because of the culture and it’s quite shocking. It leaves you quite ashamed because you become part of it.”
It left such a mark on Laura that, three decades on, it still upsets her to discuss the experience. “The job came at a great personal cost. I lost confidence, felt very much a victim, and found it hard to get out of that. I had to think about why I had let myself get into that situation. I stuck with it for a year because I had a misguided feeling that if I walked out of my first job too soon it would look bad on my CV and it would look like I hadn’t been able to weather it.”
Despite this experience, Laura still believes that small family-run residential homes can work well “as long as they are working professionally and transparently”.
“It’s balancing the ability to have a homely atmosphere with the approach that makes accountability clear,” she says. “When there is a closed culture it’s worrying and that’s when people are too scared to speak out. There’s an unspoken agreement that they all stick together and cover each others’ backs. And when there are relationships within that it’s exacerbated and that makes for a corrupt environment.”
Laura doubts that such extreme situations would arise with today’s safeguards, but adds that there is “always the risk of that collusive culture which leads to unacceptable practice behind closed doors”.
As a former care home manager and then inspector, independent social care consultant John Burton has seen this problem first hand. “There are lots of private homes run by couples, and it can be a nice family set-up,” he says. “But it can be difficult for other staff. Who do they go to if they feel they are being treated unfairly or have a difficult relationship with one partner? You know the couple are talking about work and staff outside the working day, and there’s the potential for favouritism.
“There is an intensity in residential care that is different from a normal office job, as staff work and live together in much more intimate situations. I’m not saying you should ban relationships with a colleague, but it can be one of the strongest and most potentially destructive dynamics in a care home because it’s exclusive.”
In most working situations you would expect to have some privacy around your personal relationships, but Burton argues that this can’t be the case in social work. “Your relationship should be exposed. It becomes part of the dynamics of the team and therefore you are open to examination. If you’re not, then there’s great potential danger.”
It was exactly this kind of danger that led to horrific abuse at two Buckinghamshire private care homes for people with learning disabilities run by husband and wife team Gordon and Angela Rowe. Rowe killed himself in 1996 before he could be charged with a string of offences, including rape. His wife and two staff members were found guilty of ill-treatment.
Husband-and-wife teams – a common model in children’s homes since the 1950s – are still widespread in residential homes across client groups. But Deborah Kitson, director of learning disability charity the Ann Craft Trust, has noticed a new dynamic in staff relationships emerging. She says that the people from eastern Europe and Africa that residential homes are increasingly turning to in order to fill vacancies often come from the same areas and are likely to be relatives or friends.
“As well as giving them a job, these organisations house them too,” Kitson says. “Staff then send money home and this means they are very dependent. It is an added dimension as to why they might overlook [bad practice] because they can’t risk losing their job. It’s going to be a brave person who sticks their neck out.”
Personal relationships can prevent whistleblowing as people either leave the job or shut up, adds Kitson.
Social care consultant Ray Jones stuck his neck out recently in the independent internal management review he conducted into the abuse and murder of Steven Hoskin, a man with learning disabilities in Cornwall. Commenting on one of the reasons why information was not relayed to senior managers in adult social care at Cornwall Council before and after Hoskin’s death, he said: “There were at least three instancesof managers and workers who had close line management relationships with direct accountabilities and responsibilities to each other also being in close personal relationships. This leads to confusion about relationships, is potentially compromising, and can lead to conflicts of interest.”
He recommended that the council introduce a policy which would not allow workers and managers with close personal relationships to be in direct line management relationships.
“[Relationships] may be more likely to occur in some settings, but they’re undesirable in whatever setting as they complicate the management relationship,” Jones says.
Valerie* certainly found the relationships in her mother’s care home intolerable. The owner was a woman in her thirties who employed her mother and sister as unqualified care workers and her father as the handyman. The mother was uncaring towards residents and rude to relatives, says Valerie.”There was a manageress but she was stuck between the mother and the daughter,” she adds. “I was left with the feeling that the manageress wanted me to complain to the inspection team, presumably because she felt in an impossible position to whistleblow.
“You should be able to complain but you are seen as an ogre and you are worried that they will take it out on your mother.”
In despair, Valerie turned to the Relatives and Residents Association, which advised her to complain to the Commission for Social Care Inspection. Valerie wrote a letter, but her mother died in October and she never sent it. “I couldn’t face it,” she says.
Sadly this means the employed mother – and many more like her – are still working in social care settings where their powerful relationships with other staff members mean those they work with and care for become powerless.
* Names have been changed
Do you know of any instances of personal relationships preventing good practice? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
This article appeared in the 21 February issue under the headline “A culture of collusion”