I think sometimes you see images on the TV, showing the mistreatment of human beings in some other corner of the globe and, while it's upsetting, distance somehow makes it untouchable. It might be another culture very different to our own that makes it feel so far away, or even miles themselves that make the injustice and cruelty someone else's responsibility. Not. Our. Problem.
But when Panorama aired on Wednesday night, with its exposé on Winterbourne View, a residential 'care' home in Bristol, it revealed some pretty horrible home truths about what goes on right here – what goes unnoticed, or is tolerated or ignored. It showed the systematic abuse and torture of residents who had neither the mental nor physical ability to protect themselves from 'care' workers who routinely provoked those vulnerable people for their own amusement, and for an excuse to use physical force, to wield power over them.
This IS our problem and it is sickening.
The serious attacks on some residents are too numerous to mention (I urge you to watch it yourself if you can stand to do so) but throughout I found myself thinking, how does a supposedly civilised society, an intelligent, educated, bloody fortunate society, manage to produce such utterly vile people – people who could cheerfully pin a tearful girl to the floor with a chair and slap her, or relentlessly tease a woman who has just attempted suicide?
Is it a human nature thing, 'survival of the fittest' that creates the sorts of bullies who apparently feast upon the misery of others?! Do there really exist, right here, human beings so savage and base they are incapable of making an intelligent decision about right and wrong?! Apparently so. What will their excuses be in court, I wonder?
Paul Burstow, the social care minister, has now launched a comprehensive review of all 30 care homes run by Castlebeck, the company that owns Winterbourne – and the Care Quality Commission (CQC) has promised to run spot checks on 150 other homes throughout the country. But while that may put the heebie-jeebies up similarly disgusting 'care' workers who might, for now, adjust their behaviour lest they actually get caught and arrested, as four members of Winterbourne's staff were, it does not go to the root of the problem.
The CQC does not have the power to erase casual attitudes endemic in this society that see disabled people, those with learning disabilities or mental illness, and the elderly treated like second class citizens – institutionalised, forgotten about and, in the very worst cases, treated like animals or prisoners.
A while ago I wrote here on MyDaily about the mistreatment of the elderly within the NHS (also currently being investigated by the CQC) and again I will say I have complete admiration for all the good work done by the many people within the care industry who perform their jobs with kindness, compassion and respect for their patients.
The polar opposites of those people were exposed by Panorama and, of course, the abusers at Winterbourne View are the extreme. But they are nevertheless the product of a wider society whose attitudes need to be seriously adjusted. As a friend – distressed after reading about Winterbourne – posted on her Facebook page yesterday, past school age there is simply no inclusion in mainstream society for people with learning disabilities.
To see what went on in Winterbourne was shocking. I know that when I saw the reaction of a mother, watching her 18-year-old daughter cry "mum" as she was being jeered at and given a cold shower, fully clothed, before being taken outside and left to shiver in the cold, it made me cry. And it made me think, it is not someone else's problem.
It is to an extent down to us, as individuals, to create the environment in which we wish to live and as individuals – even if not directly affected – we can and must make a very conscious effort to teach our children to accept and embrace, not marginalise and taunt. There will continue to be care homes for people unable to care for themselves – the very least we should be able to manage is a future where we unfailingly produce staff for those homes who do not consider the residents inferior.
That's a utopia I suppose – more likely for now we will have 'tougher measures' and 'more stringent checks' to prevent what should never have happened in the first place from happening again.
Meanwhile, I do hope the perpetrators of the abuse at Winterbourne View, and those who stood by and callously laughed, will be punished not just by the state but by that most human of emotions – shame. But again, perhaps I am hoping for too much.