Verbal and physical abuse, suicide, indecent assault and rape were common at Broadmoor, alleges one whistleblower. Gary Flood examines how can unions help those who want to expose bad practice.
Blowing the whistle
There are 350 male patients at Broadmoor Special Hospital in Berkshire. Men get sent to Broadmoor for crimes such as manslaughter, murder, severe sexual offences and offences involving serious violence.
There are around 70 women as well. They get sent there mainly for arson and other crimes stemming from mental disturbance.
But if what Julia Wassell (right), formerly a senior social worker at the hospital, says is true those women enter a dangerous world at Broadmoor, locked in with those men.
There they face at the very least constant verbal abuse - and at the worst rape and indecent assault. So severe has some of this abuse been that some women have committed suicide as a result, she alleges.
But we may never know the truth. Because Julias employers ignored her warnings, then paid no attention to her attempts to use their own internal whistle-blowing procedures to raise the alarm - and then, she claims, forced her to resign after a series of more and more aggressive responses to her complaints.
UNISON and the British Association of Social Workers have just helped Julia with her case against her former employers for constructive dismissal. The case was settled out of court a week before the planned industrial tribunal after 18 months of wrangling.
Wassell was a dedicated NHS worker whod won a number of awards and was a promising manager, forced out for trying to get things changed.
This is a disturbing case. Here are some more statistics: Julia polled some 28 women patients in her care. She says they reported 1,008 incidents of verbal abuse, 64 occasions of sexual harassment, 5 rapes and 6 incidents of consensual sex in the period 1998-2001. (Broadmoor has a policy where theres no sex permitted between male and female patients.)
Sexual incidents ranged from indecent exposure to rape. Julia claims two women killed themselves in 1999 and another in 2000 as a result of the trauma from such attacks.
Problems stemmed from poor supervision by staff with no clinical training at sports events and occasions where there were no staff of any kind in mixed-sex meetings and patient councils.
She says she first became concerned when in March 2001 she reported the stories of some women patients to the hospitals senior management under the existing whistle-blowing procedures.
Things escalated until her resignation in April 2002 claiming constructive dismissal as a result of management moves in response to her initiatives.
All mixed gender activities at Broadmoor were cancelled a week later.
Thats too little, too late says UNISON.
A lot of damage has already been done and that cannot be brushed under the carpet, warns UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis.
Beyond the need to make sure all allegations of sexual abuse are properly checked out, UNISON is worried that Julias bad experience will discourage other NHS or public servants who feel they need to speak out.
Whistle-blowing is now sanctioned in law as a legitimate response to concerns over patient safety. But they didnt help here. Despite repeated meetings with her line manager, hospital executives and non-executives, then her local MP her warnings were ignored.
The whole purpose of the Public Interest Disclosure Act and clinical governance post-Bristol was to encourage employers and employees to work together openly to uncover wrongdoing, he warns.
My experiences illustrate that having a whistle-blowing policy itself isnt enough, says Julia.
Its effectiveness depends on senior managers being prepared to accept theres something wrong in their organisation, put it right and respect the views of the publicly concerned professional.
Contact the article's author Gary Flood