Who cares?

A very wise woman recently wrote: “Care need was around before the market economy or labour market. We need care and cannot live without it.” I met Tanja Annika Kuronen a few years ago when she joined my graduate school in Finland. Tanja wrote her Master’s thesis about the challenges of housework among the elderly (for which she was awarded the prize from Social Policy Association in Finland of the best social policy Master’s thesis in 2007) and is continuing with the topic for her PhD thesis. Tanja and I always have quite intense, but very good discussions about social issues when we meet, chiefly about care. There have been two cases recently, one in Denmark and one in the UK, where horrendous physical and mental abuse has taken place over some time, the authorities had been made aware of the cases, and nothing was done to stop it, for far too long. In the UK it took media intervention, and in Denmark it took the courage and complaints of a sexually abused child for the authorities to react appropriately.

The case in the UK involved the persistent abuse of residents at a private care home, Winterbourne View, which houses adults with learning disabilities and autism. It is difficult to know where to start. In short, the residents were tortured, abused, tormented, humiliated, ridiculed and psychologically abused by several members of staff, while other members of staff stood around and watched, and senior staff turned a blind eye or watched with a giggle. One member of staff was deeply concerned and voiced these concerns verbally and in writing on several occasions to the management of the home and to the independent regulators of health and social care in England, Care Quality Commission(CQC). Finally he decided to contact the world’s longest running investigative TV programme, Panorama, who decided to send in an undercover care worker and secretly film what was happening. Here are some links if you would like to read/see more:

The case in Denmark involved a couple who between them had 10 children (7 together, 2 from the mother and 1 from the father) aged between twenty and one year at the time of the parents arrest in 2010. The family lived for some time in a municipality called Lolland and were known to the authorities because they were such a large family. While living in Lolland, the police had visited the house on several occasions for reasons unknown to me, but they were so horrified by the conditions that the children were living in that they took photographs and sent them to the municipality with a written report expressing that the house was unfit for human domicile. The authorities did nothing. It is thought that when the family started to get too much attention, they upped and moved to another place at the other end of the country called Brønderslev.  Here they lived in a big house that they made equally unfit to live in and the neighbours also voiced their concerns to the municipality, among other times, after witnessing the children shoveling snow in the yard dressed in sandals and scant clothing,. Again nothing significant happened. Finally, after 3 years of abuse (she moved to her father when she was 16) the eldest daughter managed to escape and make her way home to her biological mother and they went to the police.

I watched the documentary last night and I have to say, I have never seen such filth inside what can loosely be called a home in my life. The eldest daughter was with the camera crew and another older son was interviewed as well. To this day, while the parents have been found guilty of gross neglect, violence and sexual abuse against their 10 children (in June 2011), the children still have not received their due care and attention from the municipality child care services. They were starved; there was no running water in the house; they were beaten; the oldest child was sexually abused by her father; they were made to wear the same clothes for weeks on end; if the children peed in the bed they would just put clothes over the top … repeatedly; and some of the younger children cannot speak just to name a few things. Here are some links if you would like to read/see more:

In Danish:

In English:

According to several leading academics, welfare states are founded on the principle of reciprocity(the willingness to support redistribution between groups); inclusion(the acceptance of vertical redistribution, that is that people at all income levels benefit); trustthat services will be there and work when you need them; and confidencein fellow citizens that they will maintain their commitment to the social contract (Taylor-Gooby, 2009).  In both of the aforementioned cases, the welfare state let its citizens down, grossly. The last time I saw Tanja we talked about the disadvantages of the welfare state where strong adherence to rules and regulations result in neglect and human beings ignoring or going against their instincts because of rules and regulations. I would argue that this happens to a greater extent in the Nordic countries, where the adherence to procedure and cultural norms are stronger – to many foreigners I speak to the adherence seem almost robotic and almost how one imagines communism to be. In Finland there is also a strong culture of privacy, which Tanja explained can have severe consequences for the elderly who are living alone. In Britain the elderly can be at risk more due to simple neglect, rather than any issue of privacy.

In an era of excessive administration and increasing individualization, welfare states seem to be at risk of neglecting their vulnerable citizens, the very citizens they are supposed to be protecting the most. Many people will disagree, but I find it far too simplistic to place blame on individuals who work for the public sector, as only they know how their individual workday proceeds. It seems that it would be more constructive to look at the systems that are in place and be more critical towards them, as well as prosecuting the individuals for who there is direct evidence of a ‘crime’ such as the supposed care workers at Winterbourne View, and the supposed care-takers such as the parents of the ten abused children; however, I am not a lawyer. While I understand that the Care Quality Commission and the Lolland and Brønderslev municipality failed miserably, it is difficult for me to see how punishment of officials and, in the UK case, closing down the care home will prevent the same things from happening again.

More neighbours could have knocked on the door of that family house as could the children’s teachers; the parents and friends of the residents at Winterbourne could have visited and listened more. We can all care more than we do. Call me a pessimist, but I am sure the same atrocities are happening for other children and people in institutional care facilities as I write, and in this day and age with the wealth (monetary and knowledge) that the nations in question profess to have, it shouldn’t be. In Northern European welfare states, is it too late to get back to basics and as Tanja suggested put caring for our/others’ basic needs before or at least on a par with our care for markets?

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