Learning Disability Today
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Campaigners are dismayed by the sentences given to four former members of staff who abused people with learning disabilities at Whorlton Hall in 2019.
The four men have received suspended sentences of four months, three months, and six weeks respectively, along with over 200 hours of unpaid work each. This means none of the abusers will go to prison provided they commit no further offences and comply with any requirements.
Dan Scorer, head of policy and public affairs at learning disability charity Mencap, said the sentencing shows that people who abuse and neglect people with learning disabilities will be “held to account” and will have to “face up to the pain and suffering they have caused.”
However, many campaigners and advocates believe the sentences are not tough enough or reflective of the harm caused.
James O’Rourke, whose brother has a learning disability, said the sentences are “derisory” and fail to hold the perpetrators to account.
Whorlton Hall, which has now closed, was a specialist hospital known as an ‘assessment and treatment’ unit (ATU). These units are designed to provide short-term inpatient care for people with learning disabilities who have mental health problems or behaviour that challenges.
However, many people living in specialist hospitals stay there for too long and are too far away from home. There have also been many cases of incidents of abuse or neglect in these units since the Winterbourne View scandal in 2011.
The abuse at Whorlton Hall was uncovered in 2019 after a BBC Panorama broadcast showed evidence of abusive treatment of people with learning disabilities and autism at the hospital.
Footage filmed secretly by an undercover journalist showed staff mocking, taunting and threatening patients who needed 24-hour care. Staff were also filmed restraining patients unnecessarily and discussing physically abusing patients.
Judge Chris Smith said Whorlton Hall was an “unpredictable and inherently frightening place to live”.
Mr O’Rourke is a member the NHSE Learning Disability and Autism Advisory Group, a Family and Friend representative for Learning Disability England, and a CeTR (Care, education and Treatment Reviews) Independent Reviewer.
He said: “As the brother of a 60-year-old man with a learning disability living in supported living, I can only imagine the pain inflicted again on the victims and their families by the pitiful and derisory sentencing of the Whorlton Hall abusers.
“Following the announcement of the sentences, social media is bulging with criticisms, with many expressing their anger, bitterness and concern at how a system can fail those who cannot defend themselves.
“To me, ‘closed cultures’ are no longer just the preserve of health and social care; it has permeated into the wider system including the judicial system. People like my brother now have targets on their back. Potential abusers and their employers will be emboldened by such weak sentences.”
The campaign group Rightful Lives has also criticised the sentencing, saying it provides no justice for those who were abused who will not be subject to a “life sentence of trauma”.
The #WhorltonHall Four.
Convicted of abusing people with learning disabilities and autistic people.
Yet they only received suspended prison sentences.
— Rightful Lives (@RightfulLives) January 22, 2024
Mr O’Rourke says such atrocities should be dealt with long before they reach the judicial system. He is also calling for the registration of all social care staff in order to prevent more abuse from happening in the future.
“We need an effective inspection and whistleblowing system, and a sufficient social care budget and plan that will recruit, train and retain highly motivated and caring staff,” he said.
Barbara Keeley, Labour MP for Worsley & Eccles South says the sentences are “appalling” and has urged the Attorney General to challenge them.
Tim Nicholls, Head of Influencing and Research at NAS, said: “The abuse of autistic people and people with learning disabilities in this case is absolutely horrific.
“The court has heard powerful testimony about how this still impacts the lives of Whorlton Hall’s victims, day in, day out. No sentence will take away their trauma, but many people rightly believe that this isn’t enough.
“We’re thinking of those who were callously abused in Whorlton Hall’s supposed care, and their families and carers, who have bravely made clear the devastating and long-lasting impact it continues to have on their lives.”