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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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.