16 August 2011
by Debbe Caulfield
In the recently published 'Longcare Survivors', his hard-hitting follow-up to 'Silent Victims' (2004), John Pring recounts a horrific instance of institutional adult abuse. It happened not in the Dark Ages or in a remote outpost, but in the 1980s and 90s at a registered home, a mere 20 miles from central London and 15 minutes from the M4. Pring tells it like it was and, in many ways, still is. While the survivors continue to suffer from their ordeal, the factors that made possible this episode remain largely intact. As cuts in social care bite deep, hate crime increases, and self-advocacy groups are decimated, the question is: ‘Could it happen again?’
In August 1994 the Slough Observer received a leaked copy of a report into abuse at Stoke Place, a residential home for people with learning difficulties. Appalled by its contents and the prospect of a cover-up, the then editor, Janice Raycroft, decided to go public. She sent her junior reporter, John Pring, to investigate. Seventeen years later Pring is still investigating. A freelance journalist, ex-deputy editor of Disability Now, and proprietor of Disability News Service, he can’t leave the story alone. He told me he felt he owed it to the survivors to do it justice, to tell their untold stories. He said: ‘It was clear they had been deprived of their voices, silenced. I hated that.’
When ex-Broadmoor officer Gordon Rowe arrived in Buckinghamshire, he was known to have been investigated, by Somerset police, for sexually abusing people with learning difficulties. Despite strong evidence, the case was shelved due to lack of corroboration. In November 1983 Buckinghamshire County Council approved registration and Stoke Place opened its doors for business.
The closure of long-stay hospitals, together with a shortage of provision, ensured a steady flow of referrals - and fees - into Stoke Place. Its owner, Gordon Rowe created a living hell for the residents, subjecting them to years of neglect, fraud, physical violence and sexual abuse. Add to this a series of systemic failures, bureaucratic blunders and poor professional practice, and here is a story which, if told as fiction, would be considered so far-fetched as to be the product of a sick imagination. Over and over, the book screams: How? Why didn’t someone - anyone - stop it?
That it took ten years to come to light is both shocking and baffling. People had their suspicions, it seems, but suppressed them. Warning signs were missed or dismissed; bruises and blood explained away; relatives self-censored, silenced by deference and incredulity. Residents’ cries were stifled through bribery, threat and punishment. The place was bugged with listening devices, and Rowe groomed some of the residents as spies and informants. Other factors included inadequate inspection by Buckingham County Council and the failure by local authorities to keep in touch with those they had ‘placed’ there.
Eventually word got out and, despite initial sluggishness by the police, the case went to court. Collusive staff were imprisoned but Gordon Rowe was never called to account for his crimes; he killed himself the day before he was due to be arrested. In his search for answers, Pring looks beyond the individual, Gordon Rowe, asking: ‘How was it that society could allow scores of adults with learning difficulties to endure years of brutality and deprivation, in a place the authorities would call their home.’
In a dry but highly readable style, Pring delves into English history, examining the different ways that people with learning difficulties have been treated down the centuries, from almshouse to workhouse, and from ‘idiot asylum’ to ‘ordinary life’. He reveals centuries of negativity and segregation on the basis of impairment. From his own research and that of others’, there emerges a picture of a class of people routinely denied their basic human rights.
Rather than a crazy one-off, Stoke Place was a catastrophe waiting to happen. Moreover, the toxic mix of factors that made it possible still exists to a large extent, despite new legislation and changes in the registration and inspection system. To underline the point, examples of crimes against disabled people preface many of the book’s chapters. We learn that where abuse is uncovered, large numbers of cases are never heard because testimonies are deemed unreliable by people who simply, but inexcusably, don’t know how to communicate with people with learning difficulties.
As many questions as it answers, Pring’s book raises a great many more. We must keep asking them - and demanding answers. A kind of justice will have been done if this book finds its way onto the reading list for every health and social care course, in every class, college and university. It’s not an easy or pleasant read, but an essential one for all practitioners, managers, commissioners, parents, advocates and carers.
It would be great to see a version in clear/easy words and pictures freely available for people with learning difficulties and their organisations.
Longcare Survivors: Biography of a Care Scandal by John Pring with a foreword by Fiona McTaggert MP, shadow minister for equalities is published by Disability News Service, 2011, and is available to purchase direct from the publisher, priced £12.50 +p&p.
The Longcare Scandal and Silent Victims: The Continuing Failure to Protect Society's Most Vulnerable by John Pring is published by Gibson Square Books, 2004.