Human rights abuses of people with learning disabilities

The Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) published their report on the detention of young  people with learning disabilities and/or autism in mental health hospitals and so called Assessment and Treatment Units. The committee of parliamentarians ‘”condemns the “horrific reality” of conditions and treatment under which many young people with learning disabilities and autism are detained in mental health hospitals, “inflicting terrible suffering on those detained and causing anguish to their distraught families”.’

The government’s inspectors CQC come in for criticism for not consistently enough spotting human rights abuses where they are happening and the committee recommends more surprise inspections out of office hours and even covert surveillance. While CQC clearly made and continues to make mistakes, any public service which relies on covert and surprise inspections to keep people safe is fundamentally broken: the inspectors, even with more than their currently limited resources, will never catch every abuse, if the model is itself abusive. CQC itself says, ‘Services where people stay for months or years, where people are located away from their communities, where there is weak management and where staff do not have access to the right training and support, are more at risk of developing cultures where abuse and human rights breaches take place.’

Our thematic review on restraint, segregation and seclusion’s interim report came out in May 2019. The review has further emphasised the poor environment, high numbers of staff without support or training, and punitive cultures that can develop in these services.

The committee gets tantalising close to recognising this, recommending new legal duties on NHS Clinical Commission Groups and local authorities to ensure the right services are available in the community and making it harder to use the Mental Health Act to detain people with learning disabilities. The most important insight is the ‘the “grim”, predictable pathway to inappropriate detention in these potentially “brutal” circumstances’, from early family concerns around the behaviour of a son or daughter as they reach puberty. The family tries to advocate and fight for support. They remain the source of nearly all care, but are excluded from professionals’ meetings. ‘The child is taken away from their home and the familiarity and routine so essential to them, often many miles away and placed with strangers. Desperately concerned parents are treated as hostile and as a problem.’ This state-inflicted trauma leads to an emergency response, which gradually becomes open-ended ‘physical restraint and solitary confinement.’

Meanwhile, NHS England announced the extension of personal health budgets, already used by 70,000 to take control of their care package, to more people with mental health problems. As I’ve argued here before, personal health budgets, combined with significant investment in voluntary sector advocacy and planning organisations, and in not-for-profit community support organisations, offer a solution to the horrors contained in the JCHR report.

Everyone who has a learning disability, who is admitted into long-term NHS care, must be offered a personal health budget and an independent advocate to help them or their family to find and use community support to help them get out of hospital.

The rules which place decision-making power in the hands of a small group of clinicians must be changed, so that a designated decision-making circle of support, including the people who know the individual best, collectively share responsibility for protecting the individual’s human rights and maximising their life chances.

And every family whose support for their son or daughter is considered at risk of breaking down, must be offered a personal health budget of at least the equivalent value to the cost of the public service alternative, and support to spend it on support which can sustain family life, or provide a community-based alternative.

We could make these changes today.

2 thoughts on “Human rights abuses of people with learning disabilities

  1. Cormac Russell November 1, 2019 / 12:53 pm

    Great call to action, Alex. Thank you! Perhaps we can start a more civil rallying call than ”lock him up”, and replace it with ”shut them down”, while also opening community alternatives up. The Queen’s speech gives me cause for concern, that the creep of the invisible asylum and perhaps the visible asylum could be nigh, if we don’t make our voices heard. BW Cormac

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