Blind search for profits behind care home abuse
EVEN IN a euphoric Olympic week, a headline like “Mentally disabled adults abused at Christian Brothers’ home” would have grabbed the attention. It might even have ranked as a scandal – a term RTÉ was applying yesterday to some messing over a reception for our Olympians.
But Christian Brothers or nuns have nothing to do with the abuse inflicted on mentally disabled adults at Winterbourne hospital in Bristol. It was owned by a private equity fund led by Denis Brosnan, with investors including Dermot Desmond, JP McManus and John Magnier.
Last week, an official report into Winterbourne was published, after 11 former members of its staff pleaded guilty to abusing patients. It describes the “elation of those exercising merciless power” over extremely vulnerable people with mental disabilities, including severe autism: sadistic teasing, taunting patients with names like “gimp”, kicking, poking of eyes, slapping on naked buttocks, dousing with cold water, pouring mouthwash over a patient’s head and into her eyes, forcing wet wipes into a patient’s mouth, head-butting a patient with such force as to break his nose, and instilling constant fear of “harm and degradation”.
There is no suggestion that Denis Brosnan or his fellow Irish investors knew about or condoned this monstrous behaviour. When BBC’s Panorama revealed the story last year, Brosnan declared himself “shocked and appalled at what happened”, and I have no doubt this is true. Yet, he and his fellow investors bear the same kind of responsibility for the abuse at Winterbourne as the Catholic Church in general bears for the abuse at any specific industrial school in Ireland.
That responsibility is twofold. In the first place, just like the church, the businessmen set the ethical parameters within which the abusive institution operated.
In the case of industrial schools, that ethic was the absolute and unaccountable power of the church. In the case of Winterbourne it was the absolute and unaccountable priority of profit.
Winterbourne was described internally in 2011 as “one of the best performers within the group – from a financial perspective”. The patients were nice little earners, bringing in an average of £3,500 a week each. Asked how much of this was actually spent on their care, hospital group Castlebeck refused to say, citing “commercial sensitivities”.
Commercial sensitivities were the only kind at work here. Among the things that were not priorities for Winterbourne’s owners, according to the report, were “the supervision of patients”, “the complaints and concerns of patients and their relatives and visiting professionals”, or “the frequency with which restraint practices at the hospital were deployed, or even their legality”.
There was just one real priority: making as much money as possible. “It is clear,” the report says, “that at key points in the wretched history of Winterbourne . . . key decisions about priorities were taken by Castlebeck Ltd which impaired the ability of this hospital to improve the mental health and physical health and wellbeing of its patients. Castlebeck Ltd appears to have made decisions about profitability, including shareholder returns, over and above decisions about the effective and humane delivery of assessment, treatment and rehabilitation.”