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Research and the frontline: My comments on the Yew Trees hospital abuse

Image of Yew Trees hospital (BBC News)

Dan Robotham

Last month, I read the news of institutional abuse occurring at Yew Trees ‘mental health unit’ in Kirby-le-Soken, Essex. I was not surprised when I read this news. This is the latest in a long line of institutional abuse cases against people with learning disabilities. It reminded me of Winterbourne View and Whorlton Hall, both examples of places where staff behaviour was caught by hidden cameras for Panorama documentaries (preserved on YouTube).

At Yew Trees, abusers were caught through the more conventional route of CCTV footage and an unannounced inspection by the Care Quality Commission (CQC). At least the systems that were supposed to catch these things managed to do so. This is a Pyrrhic victory if ever there was one. Only last week, the CQC published a report on the potential for human rights abuses through the use of restraint, seclusion and segregation in these settings. Yew Trees is just another example of institutional abuses of people with learning disabilities in these settings. Yew Trees can be described as a ‘rotten apple’, but rot can spread. Anyone who has left a rotten apple in a fruit bowl will know this.

The problem is that abuse happens whenever institutional power takes root, unchecked and unseen, against the most vulnerable people in society. There are over 2,000 people with a learning disability and/or autism in inpatient units at the present time. These places are often set apart from the rest of society in remote areas of the country. Few people stumble across these places by accident and only a small percentage of the population will ever have reason to visit them. This makes them breeding grounds for potential abuse. The owners of Yew Trees may have had “a zero-tolerance approach to any kind of abuse” and “well-established policies and processes”, but how do such policies protect people once a toxic culture has started to spread?

As a researcher, the story about Yew Trees struck a chord because it reminded me of something. Essex is my adopted home. I began my research career by travelling around care homes for people with learning disabilities in this county, interviewing participants and staff. This took me to the rural, lesser-known parts of Essex, and to places with ‘le-Soken’ suffix (which in Anglo-Saxon means “signifying immunity, peculiar privileges and jurisdiction”, ironically). During this time, I met many wonderful family carers and paid carers, whose work should not be overshadowed by high profile abuse cases. I never witnessed anything untoward, but I remember differences in ‘vibe’ between one setting and the next. I also remember the effect that the vibe would have on residents, some of whom I followed up over time as they moved from one place to another.

Research is seldom at the frontline. There are limits to what researchers are likely to witness when they visit these places. Researchers do not wear hidden body cameras and make Panorama documentaries. Research in this area also has a blemished track record of its own. No good will come from virtue signalling about ‘more research needed’. This does not mean that we can look away though. As a researcher, I will continue to highlight these cases. We must talk about these cases with our colleagues and friends. Cases like Yew Trees are nothing new, but they must retain their power to shock and appal us. Lose that, and the problem will be insurmountable.


Dan Robotham is deputy research director at McPin