Families demand care overhaul a decade on from Winterbourne scandal

·3-min read

The families of patients held in the notorious Winterbourne View Hospital have written to the Prime Minister demanding better care for adults with learning disabilities 10 years on from the scandal.

The scale of the abuse of patients at the assessment and treatment unit near Hambrook, south Gloucestershire, was exposed by a BBC Panorama investigation a decade ago this month.

It showed patients being violently restrained, pinned under chairs, forced under cold showers as punishment and one having mouthwash poured into her eyes.

Although the hospital was shut and 11 people prosecuted, seven relatives of the autistic adults and those with learning disabilities housed there say abuse in such facilities continues unabated.

A care worker at Winterbourne View restraining a patient under a chair
A care worker at Winterbourne View restraining a patient under a chair (BBC/PA)

In an open letter to the Prime Minister, they said: “Countless other families have experienced, and continue to experience, the same trauma at the hands of the system.”

They added: “Not even the exposure in the media of their torture has been sufficient motivation for government and the NHS to change a broken system.”

The letter pointed to research by charities Mencap and the Challenging Behaviour Foundation (CBF) showing 2,040 people with autism or learning disabilities are still being held in assessment and treatment units.

Despite being meant for short-term treatment, the average time a patient is held in such units is more than five-and-a-half years – often far from their homes and families.

The charities found 355 people have been in assessment and treatment units for more than 10 years.

The letter cited data from NHS Digital showing that between October 2018 and February 2021, there have been 102,010 “restrictive interventions” of patients in such units.

Patients were dragged along the ground by care workers at Winterbourne View
Patients were dragged along the ground by care workers at Winterbourne View (BBC/PA)

The term covers practices such as physical restraint, sedation and solitary confinement.

“This is likely to be just the tip of the iceberg of mistreatment, as most units fail to submit data,” the letter said.

It added: “These hospitals are outdated and pose inherent social, emotional and physical risks to those who enter through their doors. They are simply the wrong model of care.”

The families want to see the number of assessment and treatment units rapidly reduced, and money ploughed into social services and residential care.

They say it would allow many patients to live semi-independently in their communities.

The letter said: “For the sake of our family members, and all others facing this system today, the change must happen.

“There must be an end to the inhumanity our loved ones have faced, once and for all.”

Ann Earley, mother to Simon, now 47, who was at Winterbourne View hospital between 2010 and 2011, said: “The failure to extricate people entrenched within the system is pathetic, but it is the failure to stop others being pulled in that’s even worse.

“The dangers have been exposed, the failures noted, the appalling damage catalogued but still decision-makers and commissioners condemn our loved ones to a life of misery.”

Kayleigh, 35, who has rare chromosome disorder, was an inpatient in Winterbourne View hospital but now lives in the community with her own support package.

She said: “Everything is better. I have freedom. I’m not being told when I can eat.

“I’m not being put in isolation if I’m a little bit upset. I’m able to do whatever I want.”

Edel Harris OBE, Mencap chief executive, said: “For people and their families to have been through such horrors and for so little to have changed is deplorable.

“We cannot tolerate a situation where more people are locked up simply because they cannot access appropriate support in their community.”

Vivien Cooper OBE, chief executive of the Challenging Behaviour Foundation, said: “Think what can be achieved in 10 years – then consider how little has changed for so many people with learning disabilities and autistic people whose behaviour challenges.”

She added: “We know what to do, what works, and how to do it – we need strong leadership, and people with the will, skills and determination to make this a priority and take action.”