ON 31 May 2011, the BBC broadcast an undercover investigation into Winterbourne View, a private hospital housing people with learning disabilities. Tipped off by a former nurse at the home, Panorama filmed staff slapping residents, trapping them under chairs, and dragging them into showers while fully clothed. Six members of staff were later jailed by a judge, who condemned a culture of cruelty. A serious-case review found that multiple warnings had been ignored.
In the wake of the scandal, a spotlight was shone on the large numbers of people with learning disabilities being cared for "out of borough", often with little contact with those who might act as advocates. Moves were made to bring them back in, but there remain thousands of vulnerable people living hundreds of miles outside the borough responsible for their care. At a minimum, their care will be reviewed once a year by a social worker.
Sarah Reilly, a volunteer co-ordinator for the Elfrida Society in Islington, believes this to be unsafe: "They are often high up the autism spectrum with no language, have extremely complex needs, and are placed in an extremely rural area," she explains. "Often they have no family. No one is going in to see whether they are OK."
She is changing this through the programme Circles of Protection, commissioned by the London Borough of Islington and run with the support of volunteers across the UK, many recruited through churches. After reviewing each of the people in her caseload (she is responsible for 20 out of the 150 people living outside Islington), she seeks to match them with a "befriender" who acts as her "eyes and ears" on the ground.
Mrs Reilly’s initial assessments suggest that such scrutiny is vital.
Last year, she met a man in his eighties, placed in Lincoln, who had recently suffered a stroke. He had never used language, was now in a wheelchair, and rarely left the home. Mrs Reilly drew three faces — smiley, "neutral", and unhappy — and asked him how he was.
"He pointed to the miserable face, and the manager was really surprised," she says. "But nobody had asked him."
She has since developed pictures of rooms in the home, as well as of neighbouring cafés and shops, to enable him to articulate where he would like to go. He now attends a day centre once every two weeks, and does chair-based exercises with the help of specialist visits.
Another autistic man in his forties, with severe learning difficulties, and no family, was living in a deeply rural part of Wales, and had been given high levels of anti-psychotic and anti-epilepsy medication. After persistence from Mrs Reilly — she had to overcome opposition — it was discovered that this regime had not been reviewed for decades. It was "questionable" whether he had epilepsy at all. "It is tantamount to abuse," she says.
While some staff at the homes that she visits are "really excellent, and welcoming", others are suspicious, resentful, or do not see the need for services: "They think they are providing a perfectly good service as long as people are fed and watered."
Circles of Protection, in its third year and up for review in 2016, has success stories to report. A woman who loves to draw now has her own desk and chair in her room, as requested by her advocate. Another, who was once afraid to go out, now runs to put on her shoes when her befriender arrives to play tennis.
The Church is Mrs Reilly’s single most fruitful recruiting ground for befrienders, which she attibutes to "the Christian mentality to look out for people who are vulnerable, to try and bring them into the community".
Befrienders receive a detailed briefing, with advice on how to communicate with people with autism. They are asked to make a commitment for a year, and to see their friend at least one a month.
Although she has managed to secure improvements, Mrs Reilly believes that vulnerable people with no family should not be placed out of borough at all, and certainly not without the sort of safeguards offered by Circles.
"It is uncivilised," she says. "As long as we place vulnerable individuals out of borough without safeguarding, what price do we place on their safety, on the human rights of the most vulnerable members of our society?"
Stories of befrienders
EUGENE IBO has been meeting William, who is 50, for a year. "He comes to church and is very relaxed," Mr Ibo says. "Sometimes he will be dancing. It is a joy to be with him." Mr Ibo believes that he has seen improvements in the past 12 months in William’s independence and ability to take care of himself. "The church community cherishes him so much," he says.
Torrill Osmond meets Paula, a woman with autism, regularly.
"In the beginning, sometimes she would just go up to her bedroom and was not all that interested," Ms Osmond recalls. "I remembered she liked to have her nails painted so staff suggested I did that, and slowly but surely she realised that I was her friend."
Ms Osmond eventually secured a move back to Islington for Paula, after noticing how isolated and lonely she was, only being taken to Tesco’s by staff, and with no visits from family.
"I just kept on saying ‘I am your friend, I am coming to see you;’ and now she knows I am her friend, and has come on in leaps and bounds. . . It is very rewarding. Just to make someone happy, to see a smile on their face, it is worth it. No money can replace that."
Gail Frankland heard through her vicar about the need for befrienders, and now meets Stephen weekly.
"He does recognise us now, and we are learning as well about autistic people and their behaviour, and how they express themselves through gesture and speech," she says. "We are learning from both sides."
Alongside Mrs Frankland, the Revd Norman Steer, an NSM at All Saints’, Dickleburgh and the Pulhams, runs a weekly drop-in clinic that matches those in need in the community with volunteers, including befrienders. Besides visiting Stephen, he has helped people to secure legal advice, cheaper energy bills, and home renovations. He recently fixed a clock owned by a widow who had missed its chime since her husband died.
"Basically, we are friends, and we have means of getting professional help to people, because sometimes they can’t go to professionals, because they don’t know how to talk to them and are frightened," he explains.
He is keen to reach out to those who may be out of sight. "The Church is here to love and care for people," he says. "When I trained as a nurse, the matron said to me: ‘Open your eyes: you don’t need words: just open your eyes and you can see what needs to be done.’"
A new resource has been launched to help churches to combat isolation among older people. Churches that undertake the Build-A-Link Challenge are given tools to assess the extent of loneliness in their area, and local services for older people, as well as suggestions about projects and activities that they could run.
The initiative comes from the Link Visiting Scheme, a Christian charity that enters into partnership with churches to set up befriending schemes. Its model has been in use since 1998, and provides a step-by-step guide to setting up a scheme, training, and template policies and procedures.