A Question of Culture – How We Safeguard Our Most Vulnerable

It was hard to watch. A very burly man thumping the window close to the face of a youngster and shouting aggressively because he hadn’t tidied up his room. Classic macho male intimidation. This was followed by more footage of brutal, disturbing and apparently orchestrated attacks.

I’m referring of course to the Panorama documentary broadcasting the covert filming which showed the way in which young people were being dealt with at Medway Secure Training Centre in Rochester.

We know that these young people are amongst the most difficult and can display some truly challenging behaviour and provocation which staff must deal with on a daily basis. But we also know of their extreme vulnerability. And it’s important to remember that these young people are being cared for in this setting precisely because they are vulnerable as well as very difficult.

The issues raised by this documentary have organisational culture at their heart.

Most local authorities are still responsible for providing residential care and know only too well of the dangers of the potential for dysfunctional cultures to develop. Davidson-Arad’s study Observed violence, abuse and risk behaviours in juvenile correctional facilities: Comparison of inmate and staff reports (2005) examined inmate victimisation by staff and peers. The study described the way in which closed settings like prisons developed norms of behaviour and ways of dealing with things which are in the interests of the institution and not of the people being cared for. And how staff may resort to violence because they feel as though the inmates deserve punishment or that they can do so with impunity.

This situation looks like a classic case of that dynamic.

It’s always been tempting to think that when dealing with difficult young men it’s helpful to have strong male role models. And it’s undoubtedly the case that being able to exert an authoritative presence does help with diffusing anger and dealing with physical threats. And the reality is that staff in these settings will, on occasions need to use physical restraint and do need to be not only well-trained but also strong enough to do that safely.

But I’ve seen that done effectively by women under 5 feet tall as well as gently and humanely by large muscly men.

What was deeply disturbing about the documentary was the apparent attitude of some of the staff which appeared to show them seeking conflict and then relishing having not only exerted but abused their authority. And in some disturbing instances appearing to have enjoyed inflicting both physical and emotional pain.

As has been said by those responsible for running these arrangements, there is no place for these attitudes and this behaviour in settings which are designed to care for young people.

But the other important question is the extent to which the way in which these services are commissioned and provided plays any part in a culture which incentivises, minimises or covers up difficulties and challenges in running this kind of care.

Of course the behaviour of any individual member of staff needs to be dealt with. But the bigger question is, is there something inherent in our system which is allowing this sort of culture to develop and go unchallenged?


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