Fix the care system and end these inhumane detentions

Published by The i paper (30th November, 2020)

Susie* is 16 years old. She has autism and special needs. And like so many others with similar conditions, both children and adults, she and her family have been persistently let down by the support system supposed to help them. She waited several years for help, such a scandalously long time that she started self-harming and became suicidal. Then she was sectioned in a hospital under mental health laws, where she says she was raped by another patient. When she emerged she was in far worse condition, suffering post-traumatic stress on top of other struggles.

Her mother is a medic in the National Health Service. Yet social workers turned on this family fighting for their child in pain, imposing a draconian protection order on Susie. Recently her mental health deteriorated so she sought help again, leading to another sectioning. There were no suitable beds in a decrepit system. So she spent weeks stuck in a small side room in a general hospital, heavily drugged and with four staff watching every move. Then she was moved to a non-specialist mental health clinic. She is held with boys – despite that previous claim of sexual assault – after a beating from other female patients who could not handle her autism. 

At least this place is finally trying to help. Yet when her parents visit, this terrified and traumatised teenager asks why she is punished for being ill. “It is devastating to see how hopeless and powerless she is,” her mum told me, fighting back tears as she describes her despair over how hideously her daughter has been treated. As her husband says, it is shameful our country can treat children in such an appalling manner – and the agony must be all the worse for a mother working in the health service. “I’m not sure the public realise how broken the NHS is, how much money is wasted and how politically driven most health care decisions are,” he said.

He is right. It is beyond belief that we have moved on so little from Bedlam – and this is down to abject political failure that permits torture to continue. It is two years since I wrote in this space about another teenager called Beth, one year older than Susie, who was shut in a solitary cell, self-harming, growing obese and fed through a hatch like a dangerous animal.  Her father, who fought off an injunction from his local authority to silence him, had to kneel to speak to his daughter through a hole in the metal door. Her only “crime” was having autism in a country lacking care.

Since then, fighting to stop state-sanctioned abuse in the deified NHS with its routine use of physical and pharmaceutical restraint, I have received scores more calls and emails from individuals and families stuck in similar nightmares. Yet it is nine years since the BBC’s Panorama exposed chilling horror in Winterbourne View, sparking endless promises of “transforming care” to stop people with autism and learning disabilities being locked in hellholes. 

Everyone knows it is inhumane to detain vulnerable people in psychiatric units due to dire lack of community support in a corroded social care system. Yet still it carries on. Money is far from the only issue in a system that pays firms up to £13,000 a week despite often-deadly failings. 

Last week an inquest bizarrely concluded Joanna Bailey, 36, who had epilepsy and learning disabilities, died from “natural causes” despite a string of failures at a Norfolk secure hospital. A critical device to assist breathing at night was used only 29 times over her last 209 days of life, then there was no CPR when she was found unconscious. Jurors highlighted 11 alarming concerns in a unit failed for safety by the watchdog. Lawyers for Jeesal Akman, a group making profits of more than £34,000 per bed, tried to stop the family showing the court a picture of their beloved daughter; did she look too “normal”? There have since been two more deaths at its premises.

One year ago I wrote about a meeting with Matt Hancock,  the health and social care secretary. This followed a series of damning inquiries such as one by the Joint Committee on Human Rights that savaged the repeated failures and rightly saw an issue of grotesque human rights abuse taking place in Britain. 

Hancock promised action with review and discharge plans for everyone incarcerated over 12 months and a pledge to free the first 400 people by April. Was this just empty posturing, I wondered, ahead of an election in which the Tories felt vulnerable on health? Would he really confront the profiteers and rein in the wild west of local commissioning?

Last week his officials gave me data showing that 2,060 people with autism and learning disabilities are still in mental health units – a fall of 270 since that meeting one year ago, not the promised drop of 400 in five months. Yet 1,345 new cases have been admitted, despite pledges to stop cruelty. Half those incarcerated have no discharge date. The number of delayed discharges has risen. Chris Hatton, professor of social care at Manchester Metropolitan University, also points out that alternative state data shows 5,430 such citizens detained at in-patient psychiatric units. “The Government has failed repeatedly to deliver on its promises,” he said.

Clearly the pandemic impacts on efforts to free these people – yet it also spotlights the urgency to fix our broken care system, repeatedly shown as being of secondary importance to ministers and officials despite thousands of needless deaths. People with learning difficulties have died at six times the rate of others from Covid-19, with 785 fatalities according to an official study that admits it misses one-third of deaths. Where is the outcry? 

Instead politicians play deceitful games, while social justice crusaders stay silent over abuse and bigotry. Meanwhile this scandal drags on, destroying lives and devastating families in a nation that does not care.

*Susie’s name has been changed for privacy reasons

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