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.