Confession of a Support Worker
My last blog, about Sarah, made me feel warm, fuzzy and nostalgic as I was writing it. This one is much harder, as it describes a moment in time which feels dark, shameful, and wrong.
I had just graduated and had no idea what to do next. A friend of mine was working in a residential home for people with Learning Disabilities and rather enjoying it. So I decided to do the same: earn a bit of money for the summer whilst deciding what to do with my life.
I found a job as a Support Worker, working across 2 houses; one with 7 residents with learning disabilities and one with 3. I’d be based mostly in the larger house, doing solo sleep-ins, and a 40-hour working week. It was the most fun I had ever had in a job, the residents were brilliant company, but there were some extremely challenging days too. In my first week, with very little instruction, I was given the keys to the medicine cabinet. Within a couple of weeks, with no formal training whatsoever, I was working alone from 10pm – 8am, once or twice a week.
I’ll introduce you to John (name changed). A 50-year-old man with Downs Syndrome, who lived in the larger house. I could understand what he was saying, with a bit of practice and a lot of concentration. He made me laugh and we got on well, and he was one of the easier residents to cope with. On my first sleep-in, I was instructed by my manager that everyone must be in bed at 10pm, that John may be a bit “tricky”, and that I should stand my ground. She had 30 years’ experience as a home manager. I had about 10 working days as a minimum-wage support worker. So, she must have been right!
First sleep-in. 10pm. Everyone in bed. Teeth, PJs, all good – I was doing so well! I went downstairs, and found John in the kitchen, in a great mood, with the kettle on, starting to make himself some toast. No! This was not ok. The manager’s voice was in my head: “He may be a bit tricky. Stand your ground.”.
Me: John, you can’t start making toast now, its 10pm. Bedtime!
John: Want toast. Hungry!
Me: Sorry, no, I have been told you must be in bed. Put it all away now, you can have lots of toast in the morning.
John: NO. Toast.
Me (raising voice, turning off toaster, putting butter back in the fridge): No! Bed!
….and on it went, for about a minute. Until that horrible, dark moment, which is now etched into my mind.
Me shouting at John.
John crying under the kitchen table.
A 50-year-old man, crying under a table, because he wanted toast, and I wouldn’t let him.
I suddenly hated myself.
I made both of us some toast, and a big pot of tea. I told him I was sorry. He said, “its ok”.
We sat on the sofa and watched a film together until 1am. I told him to keep it a secret from the other staff because I would have been put on a disciplinary if my boss knew I let him stay up after bed-time. Our arrangement from that night on was that if I was doing sleep-in duty, John could stay up, if he promised to switch everything off, which we rehearsed together a few times. Toaster, kettle, lights. I would set my alarm for 2am, so I could make sure he was in bed and everything was in order.
This story is a bit mundane but also important because it is about a good person standing on a precipice of abuse. I understand how easy it is to do the wrong thing, if you are untrained and powerless in a big organisation, with the threat of losing your job if you do not tow the management line. Alone, at night, worn out, working in a dictatorial culture, and given too much responsibility too soon.
When I see stories like Whorlton Hall and Winterbourne View, I do not wonder as much about the abusive individuals themselves as I do about the system they were working in. Support work is intense, highly skilled (or should be!), very unpredictable and utterly exhausting. It is also the lowest-paid work; generally well below the pay offered by supermarkets, cleaning jobs and bars. Organisations must train, value, supervise, support and discipline their staff, and be held just as accountable as the people they employ when abuse is uncovered.
Despite this confession, I believe that our residents were ok. I could look their relatives in the eye. I would have been happy for my sister, brother or daughter to live there. We did all sorts; went to the pub, the cinema, shopping, horse-riding, holidays, and people had their own private space. The food was home-cooked and the house was warm, welcoming and comfortable. But the best staff never stayed for very long, and in that moment with John I realised that abuse is a spectrum; and we are all susceptible to be driven to the edge, given the right (or wrong) conditions.