Cases of abuse have cast a shadow over the care industry. Photo: John Moore
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“We’re almost sneered at by society”: a care worker on her stigmatised profession

Steve Doran has worked at a care home in Dartford for four years, but she believes that a concentration on abuse cases has blighted the reputation of her industry.

In early 2011, a BBC Panorama investigation into one care home on the fringes of Bristol unveiled systemic abuse. Using covert filming at the Winterbourne View residential centre, reporters uncovered how patients with severe learning difficulties and autism were being slapped and restrained under chairs, having their hair pulled and being held down as medication was forced into their mouths. Hours of graphic footage recorded during the five-week investigation showed one support worker, Wayne Rogers, telling a resident: “Do you want to get a cheese grater and grate your face off? Do you want me to turn you into a giant pepperoni?” Following the report, six care workers at the care home were given prison terms for “cruel, callous and degrading” abuse of disabled patients.

“We were all horrified,” says 28-year-old Steve Doran. “On the rare occasion when these abuses do happen, we’re more appalled than the general public and even more keen to see the abuser brought to justice,” she adds. For four years, Doran has cared for vulnerable people – particularly those with dementia – at the Priory Mews care home in Dartford as an activities coordinator. “A lot of people just assume I’m doing crossword puzzles and singalongs. I mean, there is part of that. But it’s mainly one-to-one engagement, having a conversation, speech therapy and talking through things – basically anything a resident would need to lead a happy, meaningful life.” 

She remembers one elderly lady at the Dartford care home with a particular fondness. “One of the things she said to me is that she always wanted to have a white wedding,” says Doran. “She was married to her husband just after the Second World War, and didn’t have a lot of money or time – so they just had a simple registry office wedding. They’d always said, ‘One day in the future we’ll go back and have a big white wedding.’ We knew this old lady was approaching the end of her life so our care home organised them to have this white wedding they’d always dreamed of.

“We arranged for her a proper white wedding dress, we did her hair and we got her these beautiful silk wedding slippers. Sadly, she passed away a few days later. But just after the wedding she said to me that she had never felt so young and beautiful."

But Doran believes that a concentration on odious cases of abuse in care homes have created an environment where care workers are “almost sneered at by society”, and that somewhere along the line the public has, “mentally linked the care industry with abuse.”

“We’re not saying that those things shouldn’t ever be given attention, or shouldn’t be focused on – they absolutely should,” adds Doran. “But that’s not all there is to care. The only thing you ever see on television is when there is abuse.” 

Recently the Care Quality Commission (CQC) – the independent regulator of health and social care in England – published information for service users, families and carers on the use of hidden cameras and other types of recording equipment. A document released with the CQC’s guidance notes said that while using recording equipment may help to ease families’ concerns, it may also help identify poor care or abuse. It adds: “However, you should think about how it may intrude on other people’s privacy, including other people who use the service, staff, families and visiting professionals.

It is not so much the issue of surveillance that bothers Doran, she tells me. And according to a recent survey of 2,000 members of the GMB union, three in five residential care workers feel “relaxed” about visible cameras being installed in care homes. “If there was a law saying that we’re now going to film in care homes, schools, police stations and anywhere else there are vulnerable people, I wouldn’t really have much of an issue.”

But Doran takes issue with the fact that there hasn’t been a “collective raising of eyebrows” following the CQC guidance. She believes that there’s an underlying assumption that care is a dodgy industry and that carers can’t be trusted on their own merits.

“I don’t hear anyone suggesting that we covertly film all employees of the BBC, even though we can demonstrate abuse has happened in that institution. I don’t hear anyone suggesting we covertly monitor the banks, for who tax avoidance and dodgy dealing is not so much a rare abuse as a business model. The people who work in these industries expect to be viewed as more than the failings of their colleagues – but won’t give the same credit to people working in the care industry.

“We haven’t caused the issues affecting care – as a matter of face, we’ve compensated them. We’ve continued to work long hours, on low pay, in stressful situations, under constant scrutiny, to even more ridiculous targets,” adds Doran. According to recent research from the Resolution Foundation, about 160,000 care workers are paid less than the minimum wage – meaning they miss out on £815 a year on average. But it is a job that Doran wants to dedicate her life too. She wants her profession to be viewed with the dignity and respect that it deserves, not the callous actions of a minority and of those who once worked at the Winterbourne residential centre. 

Ashley Cowburn writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2014. He tweets @ashcowburn



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No, IDS, welfare isn't a path to wealth. Quite the opposite, in fact

Far from being a lifestyle choice, welfare is all too often a struggle for survival.

Iain Duncan Smith really is the gift that keeps on giving. You get one bile-filled giftbag of small-minded, hypocritical nastiness and, just when you think it has no more pain to inflict, off comes another ghastly layer of wrapping paper and out oozes some more. He is a game of Pass the Parcel for people who hate humanity.
For reasons beyond current understanding, the Conservative party not only let him have his own department but set him loose on a stage at their conference, despite the fact that there was both a microphone and an audience and that people might hear and report on what he was going to say. It’s almost like they don’t care that the man in charge of the benefits system displays a fundamental - and, dare I say, deliberate - misunderstanding of what that system is for.
IDS took to the stage to tell the disabled people of Britain - or as he likes to think of us, the not “normal” people of Britain -  “We won’t lift you out of poverty by simply transferring taxpayers’ money to you. With our help, you’ll work your way out of poverty.” It really is fascinating that he was allowed to make such an important speech on Opposite Day.
Iain Duncan Smith is a man possessed by the concept of work. That’s why he put in so many hours and Universal Credit was such a roaring success. Work, when available and suitable and accessible, is a wonderful thing, but for those unable to access it, the welfare system is a crucial safety net that keeps them from becoming totally impoverished.
Benefits absolutely should be the route out of poverty. They are the essential buffer between people and penury. Iain Duncan Smith speaks as though there is a weekly rollover on them, building and building until claimants can skip into the kind of mansion he lives in. They are not that. They are a small stipend to keep body and soul together.
Benefits shouldn’t be a route to wealth and DWP cuts have ensured that, but the notion that we should leave people in poverty astounds me. The people who rely on benefits don’t see it as a quick buck, an easy income. We cannot be the kind of society who is content to leave people destitute because they are unable to work, through long-term illness or short-term job-seeking. Without benefits, people are literally starving. People don’t go to food banks because Waitrose are out of asparagus. They go because the government has snipped away at their benefits until they have become too poor to feed themselves.
The utter hypocrisy of telling disabled people to work themselves out of poverty while cutting Access to Work is so audacious as to be almost impressive. IDS suggests that suitable jobs for disabled workers are constantly popping out of the ground like daisies, despite the fact that his own government closed 36 Remploy factories. If he wants people to work their way out of poverty, he has make it very easy to find that work.
His speech was riddled with odious little snippets digging at those who rely on his department. No one is “simply transferring taxpayers’ money” to claimants, as though every Friday he sits down with his card reader to do some online banking, sneaking into people’s accounts and spiriting their cash away to the scrounging masses. Anyone who has come within ten feet of claiming benefits knows it is far from a simple process.
He is incredulous that if a doctor says you are too sick to work, you get signed off work, as though doctors are untrained apes that somehow gained access to a pen. This is only the latest absurd episode in DWP’s ongoing deep mistrust of the medical profession, whose knowledge of their own patients is often ignored in favour of a brief assessment by an outside agency. IDS implies it is yes-no question that GPs ask; you’re either well enough to work or signed off indefinitely to leech from the state. This is simply not true. GPs can recommend their patients for differing approaches for remaining in work, be it a phased return or adapted circumstances and they do tend to have the advantage over the DWP’s agency of having actually met their patient before.
I have read enough stories of the callous ineptitude of sanctions and cuts starving the people we are meant to be protecting. A robust welfare system is the sign of a society that cares for those in need. We need to provide accessible, suitable jobs for those who can work and accessible, suitable benefits for those who can’t. That truly would be a gift that keeps giving.