Far less than they deserve

By Lucy Butler

| 21 June 2019

On 22 May I joined many other people in watching a Panorama programme exposing the cruel and callous treatment of staff towards people with learning disabilities and autism in their care at the now infamous Whorlton Hall. This programme came after an eight year period of reform in this area, including the Transforming Care Programme, following a similar Panorama programme that exposed shocking abuse at Winterbourne View. It seems that some of the issues endemic in the sector remain the same despite almost herculean efforts to tackle them.

May also saw the publication of the Children's Commissioner's report Far less than they deserve. The report focuses on the experiences of children and young people with learning disabilities and autism receiving treatment in mental health hospitals and found that at the time of the research there were 250 children receiving hospital care. Whilst the report did find evidence of good practice, many of the children and young people spoke of "traumatic" experiences during their care as well as high levels of restraint. Many were placed a long distance away from their families, and some described experiences of seclusion in dark, bare rooms.

I started my career in the heyday of ‘community care'. This was a period of high optimism and aspirations for people with learning disabilities, autism and mental health needs. Money was invested in communities and long stay institutions were dismantled. Government initiatives focused on the person-centred needs of people and their families and it was a time which included big programmes of reform such as Valuing People, People First and Self-Directed Support. It felt at this point that the world would be recast and that people with learning disabilities would be given the life chances and respect that they deserve.

In the South East we have conducted work across all 19 local authorities looking at the needs of our most complex and vulnerable children. We analysed how those needs are met and looked at the children's outcomes, and what has become crystal clear is that we do not have sufficient community and specialist residential support available. Our plan now is to work collaboratively across the region and with provider partners to co-produce solutions for the specific gaps we have outlined.

Given these challenges, I would endorse the findings outlined by the Children's Commissioner in her report, particularly where she calls for a cross-government plan to provide community support for children. She rightly points out that Transforming Care has not focussed on the needs of children and young people and that this must change. However, she also points out that, crucially, we need more funding and focus in this area if we are to see real change.

I think we need to urgently create a coalition which will bring together the NHS, local authorities, providers and children, young people and their families to work out what is best to support those children and adults who need our support the most. I believe passionately that as a society we can do better, but I also believe that there is a way forward. All local authorities are ambitious about making sure children and families have the best possible outcomes in life, so come on, let's give them a future that they truly deserve.

Lucy Butler is director of children, education and families, Oxfordshire County Council. This blog first appeared on the ADCS website

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