BADD 2016: Break the silence

An image featuring the words "Blogging Against Disablism", with a variety of stick figures of different colours on different coloured backgrounds, one holding a stick, and a wheelchair in one of the spaces.This post is part of Blogging Against Disablism Day 2016.

Last month we saw the Seven Days of Action campaign, to highlight the cases of people with learning disabilities, mostly autism, who are being held for prolonged periods in Assessment and Treatment Units (ATUs) when they could or should be at home, or in a care home environment near their family. For last year’s BADD I also blogged on this issue; some of the people I mentioned are still trapped; Josh Wills has been happily resettled (after many bureaucratic hurdles) in his own home in Cornwall, Claire Dyer is still free, while Thomas Rawnsley’s inquest has yet to begin (a pre-inquest hearing was adjourned last week at the request of the “other parties”). I decided to link this year’s BADD post to Seven Days of Action so as to attract the wider disability activist community’s attention.

Here’s a run-down of the cases featured during the Seven Days. One story had to be changed, as although the young man had recently been discharged from an ATU into a local placement similar to Josh Wills’s, the placement had “hit some snags” and the local authority were talking of putting him back in the ATU.

Kara from Who By Fire wrote an excellent post in conclusion, summarising the issues which had been raised by the seven stories. Mark Neary has since posted an entry about some developments which have followed from this event: one young lad (Robert) was approved for funding for a placement in a local care home, but others have faced retaliation, including parents threatened with a gagging order, extended detention and even one assault.

There are a number of petitions addressed to various local authorities, demanding that they secure placements for the young people (mostly boys and men) who are trapped in these units. In one case (Robert’s), the ATU staff even signed the petitions themselves. However, some of them have had to be closed down when staff warned the parents that they were monitoring their online activities and that they could affect their loved ones’ treatment or keep them detained for longer. This is obviously a dreadful abuse of power, and it’s a power they would not have if psychiatrists were not able to detain people under the Mental Health Act when they are not mentally ill but rather are displaying distress behaviour which is normal for their learning disability when they are simply anxious, or struggling to deal with a sudden change in their life, or with uncertainty (as has been observed elsewhere, such crises often happen at age 17 or 18 when school ends and a well-established routine suddenly ends). However, some of the same behaviour is provoked by the treatment they receive once in, as such units often make no attempt to fit the needs of the individual patients and the staff may have no clue how to address them. (There are reports of such behaviour being provoked deliberately, as well.)

Psychiatrists have too much power. They are not fully accountable. They can make decisions that affect the quality of people’s lives, everything from suspending someone’s driving licence without notice to sectioning someone and then transferring them to another unit, perhaps hundreds of miles away, without their or their family’s consent and without any serious opportunity to challenge. Add the ability to threaten or intimidate families into silence and you have the potential for an awful lot of abuse.

Silence is often justified in terms of protecting vulnerable people; this is particularly so when children in care are concerned; parents are prohibited from disclosing what went on in a family court session, for example. In some cases, not naming a child involved in care proceedings or who has been a victim of a sexual assault is entirely appropriate for their protection (and I have defended it on one previous occasion, where Panorama were forbidden from naming a boy who had been taken into care after, among other things, setting fire to his room, after a legal challenge from the local authority). However, it can also undermine a parent’s position and their child’s trust in them — I read an article recently by a mother who had had to lie to her daughter so as to conceal the fact that her parents were in the family courts, which ordered that she not disclose the fact to her daughter. But worst of all, it can stop a parent or relative seeking advice in a semi-public forum such as Facebook or MumsNet about dangers their relative is facing, let alone taking it to the media. This is likely to be the case if someone is in a care home under the orders of the Court of Protection, for example (as Thomas Rawnsley was at the end of his life).

However, injustice, abuse and cruelty thrive when people cannot talk about it. So many victims of sexual abuse reported that their abusers told them not to tell as it would break up their family, break their mother’s hearts, or they wouldn’t be believed (and they were often right on the last of these things). We talk about justice being done and seen to be done; we have the Freedom of Information Act so that government departments cannot conceal waste or corruption. Publicity is vital for ensuring that people who have power over others’ lives cannot abuse it with impunity. I believe that the fact that Claire Dyer’s case was known locally in South Wales and was being widely discussed in the disability blogging community, including on this site, and that the commercially-run unit which took her despite not being equipped to do so knew this, was a major factor in ensuring that she was released early. The family of Robert Stillman, whose placement was approved days after his story was highlighted on Seven Days of Action, are convinced that this is what made the difference.

We cannot discuss the reasons why ATUs and the Mental Health Act they rely on to detain people are inadequate, sometimes lethally so, if the lives of the people affected are shrouded in secrecy. We must campaign to end the secrecy of the Court of Protection where it is not necessary (the judiciary is already moving in this direction). Trusts and corporations must know that their names will become public knowledge if a disabled person dies or is seriously injured in their care. Secrecy benefits nobody except the abusers, the foot-draggers and the companies that profit from disabled people’s misery and their families’ grief. It must be fought at every turn.

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