Double standards

The current political farce / tragedy has meant that a shaming report[1] concerning the institutional abuse of disabled young people has failed to attract the attention it deserves.  The report results from an investigation commenced in March 2021 into the three specialist residential settings run by the Hesley Group[2] in Doncaster.

The reportseeks to make sense of how and why a significant number of children with disabilities and complex needs came to suffer very serious abuse and neglect’ when living in these residential settings (page 4).  The abuse included ‘physical abuse and violence, neglect, emotional abuse and sexual harm’. The young people affected were placed in the homes by 55 local authorities.  The report authors record that although, as professionals, they are familiar with serious harm (para 10.2):

we have been shocked by what we have learnt. Children experienced repeated and dangerous physical restraints, were deprived of their liberty, were subjected to physical abuse as a form of discipline, and suffered bullying, taunting and excessive and inappropriate use of medication. Abuse and neglect flourished due to lack of oversight, limited professional curiosity and poorly exercised accountability which allowed the provider to take on a lead role, picking and choosing what was shared without challenge and painting a false reality. Ultimately, the voices of the children were not heard.


Incredibly distressing as the report is, sadly it follows a well-trodden path.  OFSTED had received a number of complaints from families and whistle-blowers concerning two of the homes dating back to at least 2015, but nevertheless it gave them a ‘good’ rating.  However, in 2021 an unannounced visit found serious failings and notices of suspension were served. A national review was instigated, and this note refers to its first report – the forward to which states that:

It brings into sharp relief how the voices and experiences of this group of children are too often marginalised, misrecognised, and hidden from public sight. It is profoundly shocking that, in the twenty first century, so many children who were in ‘plain sight’ of many public agencies could be so systematically harmed by their care givers.


The young people in the homes had (para 1.2):

complex needs including: autism (82%), learning disabilities (76%), mental health difficulties such as anxiety, obsessive‑compulsive disorder and bipolar disorder, and attention defcit hyperactive disorder (25%). Many of the children had profound difficulties with receptive and expressive communication, but were not supported when they displayed behaviours, signs and symptoms that were indicative of child abuse. They were among the most vulnerable children in society, yet they experienced systematic and sustained physical abuse, emotional abuse and neglect.


Many of the young people found themselves accommodated in the homes because of the failure of their local authorities to provide their families with the most meagre of support (especially when contrasted with the staggering residential care costs that these authorities then incurred when the families could no longer cope).  As the report notes, for example ‘offers of short breaks and family support were inadequate and insufficient’ (para 1.29) and (para 7.8):

the picture that emerged of inadequate and insufficiently expert support for families is supported by research evidence. Adequate and sustained family engagement is described across 14 research reports as a successful preventative measure that is not seen enough in reality. A UK expert has observed that many parents have felt unsupported for so long that they now have difficulty engaging with help offered.[3]


Of the 108 children considered in the review, the average distance between their residential setting and their home was 95 miles (para 4.10) and as the report notes:

Research evidence shows a clear link between the distance from the setting to the child’s family home and increasing vulnerability to abuse.[4] Being placed far away from their home authority impacted on the ways in which different children were visited and reviewed by their social workers and family members. Some social workers only saw their children when they returned to their home authority during school holidays, and therefore went long periods without seeing them in person. Parents also faced financial barriers to seeing their children, particularly where local authorities did not provide support with travel costs.

Our current research[5] at the School of Law concerns families that include a disabled child (and for whom there is no evidence of abuse or neglect). These families are, nevertheless, routinely subjected to ‘safeguarding’ to utterly disproportionate levels of scrutiny / surveillance and human rights violations.  Abuse reports of this nature add to the levels distress and trauma experienced by such families.  Many know that without adequate support, their child may end up in a residential placement and if that were to occur ‘safeguarding’ would go out of the window.

This is a dimension where far too many authorities operate double standards: an approach that defies the evidence – namely the different ‘safeguarding’ experienced by many disabled children living with their loving families compared to that experienced by profoundly disabled children living in distant institutional settings.[6] And what we learn from this report (as we have from countless others) is that even when there is cogent evidence that they are being abused within the institution – evidence from families, from whistle-blowers, from the young people themselves – safeguarding is nowhere to be seen.


[1] The Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel Safeguarding children with disabilities and complex health needs in residential settings: Phase 1 Report Council for Disabled Children October 2021.
[2] Companies House records suggest that in the financial year to June 2021 the Hesley Group Ltd made a profit of £7.3 million from a turnover of £82.4 million – see The Hesley Group Ltd: Report and Financial Statements for the period ended 30 June 2021.
[3] C S Sholl ‘A reflective evaluation of the Bradford positive behaviour support – in reach service’ Tizard Learning Disability Review, (2020) Vol. 25 No. 4, pp. 193-196.
[4] M A Nunno, M J Holden and A Tollar, ‘Learning from tragedy: A survey of child and adolescent restraint fatalities’ Child Abuse and Neglect 2006 Dec;30(12):1333-42.
[5] L J Clements and A L Aiello Institutionalising Parent Carer Blame (Cerebra 2021).
[6] See for example Article 39 Abuse in children’s institutional settings: How much is known? December 2021.

Posted 28 October 2022