Charities are calling for a complete overhaul of services for autistic people and people with learning disabilities after four former staff at Whorlton Hall have been found guilty of abuse and neglect.
The abuse at the specialist hospital for people with learning disabilities and autistic people in County Durham, was uncovered after the BBC sent an undercover reporter to work at the unit back in 2019.
Panorama sent undercover reporter Olivia Davies to work shifts at the 17-bed unit for two months between December 2018 and February 2019. Whorlton Hall was closed shortly after the documentary was broadcast.
Nine former staff at Whorlton Hall, near Barnard Castle, County Durham, had faced a total of 27 charges. Five of those on trial have been cleared.
Whorlton Hall staff should feel ‘the full force of the law’
Mencap said that it was “absolutely appalling” that 12 years on from the abuse scandal at Winterbourne View, people with a learning disability, autistic people and their families continue to be mistreated, neglected and failed by the system.
Dan Scorer, Head of Policy, said: “No-one who has seen the footage and read about the charges in this case can feel anything other than horror and disgust. We stand alongside the families who have been affected, and the staff involved should feel the full force of the law.
“Learning disabilities and autism are not conditions that can be ‘treated’, yet the NHS and the government continue to fund private care facilities like Whorlton Hall. This distressing case represents another abject failure, and we cannot allow any more people to lose years of their lives to this abusive system.”
The charity said that the government has repeatedly promised to ‘transform care’ and close these hospitals, but analysis reveals they will miss their latest target to reduce the number of people with learning disabilities and autistic people in mental health hospitals by 50%.
They are also at least four years away from delivering the change needed to prevent people from languishing in these places and developing the right support in the community instead.
Meaningful funding for community mental health services needed
The National Autistic Society said it was pleased to see long-awaited convictions handed down in some cases, but what happened at Whorlton Hall is also part of a wider ongoing decades-long injustice.
Tim Nicholls, Head of Influencing and Research, said: “From the day the horrific abuse at Whorlton Hall was uncovered, it’s been vital that the individuals who suffered such degrading treatment got justice.
“Real justice for these autistic people and people with a learning disability and hundreds more like them in mental health units is about more than important convictions; it’s about real change. We need a complete overhaul of services for autistic people and people with learning disabilities.
“Government must reform mental health law as soon as possible, and provide urgent and meaningful funding for community mental health services and the social care system, so that autistic people get the right support and don’t reach crisis in the first place.”
There are currently more than 2,000 people with a learning disability and/or autistic people being detained in inpatient mental health hospitals.