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Whorlton Hall - What is the Learning?

In this article, Professor Andrew McDonnell comments on the ongoing court case against nine members of staff implicated in the BBC Panorama documentary exposing abusive practices at Whorlton Hall.

Image shows the outer facade of former in-patient hospital for vulnerable people Whorlton Hall, now closed and boarded up following abusive practices exposed in 2019.
Whorlton Hall, closed down in 2019 following BBC's undercover documentary (Image credit: Sarah Caldecott)

This week, the court case against the nine members of staff who were implicated in the BBC Panorama undercover documentary aired in 2019 continues. The documentary, Undercover Hospital Abuse Scandal, depicts the mistreatment of vulnerable patients with complex needs in a privately-run NHS-funded hospital setting, which has since been closed down. The nine members of staff identified in the undercover footage obtained by reporter Olivia Davies are this week facing a total of 27 offences for their activities between January and February 2019. I participated in providing an expert opinion on the abusive practices witnessed in this documentary, alongside Professor Glynis Murphy from Kent University’s Tizard Centre, who is a well-known national figure in the area of behaviours of concern and intellectual disabilities. I have also previously commented on the implications of this documentary, and some of the steps that still need to be taken in order to protect vulnerable people in these settings, and prevent hospitalisation as much as possible in an article from 2020 entitled ‘Bring People Home.’

I think it is fair to say that the systematic abuse of vulnerable adults is not a new phenomenon. We have had a veritable litany of enquiries over the last two decades. In a similar vein, I was an expert on the BBC Panorama documentary on Winterbourne View with the late Professor Jim Mansell. I remember him stating that places such as Winterbourne View should be closed.

I want to stress that whether places are in the private or public sector is not the core issue for me; it is the model itself that is wrong. As a psychologist, I can find little justification for supporting medicalised models where individuals who are stressed and traumatised are collectively housed with similarly distressed individuals. The model of ‘assessment and treatment’ is fundamentally flawed. It has been my experience, and that of my colleagues at Lives Through Friends, that individualised supports for people who have quite extreme behaviours of concern (such as self-injury, self-injurious behaviours, physical aggression, and suicidal ideation) are more likely to have effective results. In a previous article, entitled ‘From Hospital to My Own Front Door,’ I outlined the significant bureaucracy that is involved in moving individuals from hospital settings to community-based supports. I am a great believer in individualised services where a staff team, properly supported and trained, can become a ‘therapeutic environment’ for individuals, regardless of their labels.

So, what is the real learning from Whorlton Hall? To me, it is quite straightforward. We need to radically rethink and commission services that are often part of the problem, rather than part of the solution. A colleague whom I respect in this field recently said to me that once you get put into some kind of detention using the Mental Health Act, the barriers to getting people back to their communities and their lives are systemic. As tax payers, we are spending huge sums of money supporting individuals who are trapped in the system. After Winterbourne View, people spoke about ‘transforming care.’ If we are really to achieve meaningful change, then we have to change how we think about and manage risk. On a personal note, I have been actively involved with my colleagues at Lives Through Friends in designing and developing individual support systems. Do we get things right all of the time? No, but we do try our best to every time. The way we work requires persistence, reflection, determination, and optimism. I am in little doubt that the capability exists to reduce the system’s addiction to secure beds across the four nations.

In conclusion, my response to the Whorlton Hall abuse scandal is that we expect a lot from staff who are poorly paid, often highly stressed, and work long hours in the care field. I do believe that work in social care needs to be valued both financially and politically. The issue I have is that the vast majority of staff that I work with under these circumstances categorically do not abuse individuals. We know there are ‘rotten apples’ in the system as multiple undercover documentaries over the last few years have shown, but there are also people who, to my mind, are heroes. These are the individuals who we rely on to support people in distress. They are empathic, compassionate, person-centred, and do not focus on behaviours: they see the trauma that the people they support have experienced, and do their best to support them.

Written by Professor Andrew McDonnell

Clinical Psychologist and CEO of Studio 3

March 2023


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