We will learn no others

“Friendly and loveable” Ben King died aged 32 after spending over two years at Cawston Park Hospital last year. Ben’s was one of three concerning deaths since 2018. The hospital was in special measures at the time of his death and has now been closed. According to the charity Inquest, the inquest into Ben’s death found that the breathing problems which ultimately killed him, were down to a preventable health condition, caused by obesity which had got out of control when his day support and activities were cut. When he died, there was not even any plan to help him lose weight, despite multiple hospital trips. He was also hit, hours before his death, by hospital staff, who failed to take his condition seriously enough to get him life-saving treatment. So much about this story is familiar from other tragedies: the fuller life led with his Mum, and then, when his Mum could no longer care for him, the decline through unhappy care services, behavioural issues, institutional care, poor medical regimes and diet, and in the end a bereaved mother campaigning for the truth and some semblance of justice.

It is the failures and abuses immediately surrounding his death which shock most: a staff member ‘struck’ him twice when he was already dangerously ill (I can find no mention of a police investigation). Another ignored him as he died.

But in every case of this kind, it is the long-term, systemic failures which should make us most angry: the inability of expensive services to help Ben live as well as he had done with his Mum, who would have had a fraction of the state resources that were spent on Ben’s care. The budget ‘savings’ made by withdrawing a fitness regime which would have kept him alive. The increasing use of powerful drugs to keep him sedated, with little apparent awareness of how dangerous they were.

The inquest makes clear links between Ben’s hospital admissions and bad choices made by highly-paid experts. Why were those links made by none of those experts? The longer someone remains in a medicalised environment, suffering repeated and worsening crises, the easier it becomes for professionals to see that person’s medical and disability labels, their ‘challenging’ or ‘complex’ nature, as the reason things are going wrong for them, rather than decisions the experts are making, which come with all the reassuring rigmarole of diagnoses, risk assessments, multi-agency planning, case notes. Few if any would have a clear picture of how much better his life had been just a few years before. Did his mother’s concerns become easier to dismiss? Some professionals are prone to talk of families’ (particularly mothers’) ‘over-protectiveness.’ And of course, the more unprotected their son or daughter appears, the more protective they try to be. Services, however, are never described as ‘under-protective’, even when their complacency leads to people’s deaths.

As someone becomes de-humanised, their life diminished, their choices and dreams shrunken, their medical issues more enthusiastically examined and labelled, their distress pathologised, then failures or abuse by individual workers become more likely. There will have been skilled, compassionate people working at Cawston Park Hospital. Its parent company has a social media feed full of lovely-looking care and activities (no mention I could see of Ben or the inquest). But there is a long history of organisations which charge thousands of pounds for their expert care attracting people who are thoughtless or cruel, or who become so.

Another young life lost. Another grieving family. No doubt even now, someone well-paid to provide “strategic leadership” to the services which failed Ben and many like him, will be saying that ‘lessons will be learned’. But we remain hell-bent on ignoring the lesson that disabled people and their families have learned in their thousands for centuries: there are deadly risks and harms inherent in incarcerating people out of reach of family, friends and community. For as long as we continue to ignore that lesson, we will learn no others.