Self-reproach; it sounds like an reason for someone to jump in and remind you the song ‘My Way’ and that overused platitude; ‘Regrets? I’ve had a few, but too few to mention..’! Yet there are many reasons for people to look back at a series of events with a feeling of disappointment or distress about something that they wish could be different.
There’s been a lot of press recently about encouraging people to ‘whistleblow’ within organisations, especially those which involve health and social care. When we watch TV programmes and read articles about the distressing practices exposed by brave people who make the decision to listen to their moral conscience and speak out, we applaud them. We sit at home and say that we wish there were more people like them, many sit there saying they’d do the same, and are appalled to think that people can work in situations where people are exposed to abuse or cruelty and turn a ‘blind eye’.
However the ‘law’ does little to protect the ‘whistleblower’ and they can find themselves vilified and victimised and out of a job.
What happens, however, to the ‘whistleblower’ who shouts out from inside, as a victim or as a witness to behaviour from employees of an organisations who causes danger to life or limb, or a threat to mental health? Who cares about the Service User whistleblower?
I know a group of people with lived mental health experience who took steps to expose the ‘goings on’ within a local charitable organisation providing mental health services. This group of people were so outraged by the treatment of a staff member who experienced bullying, verbal abuse, and more at the hands of managers, staff, and other people using the service as clients, that they decided, following the resignation of the staff member, to whistleblow.
Firstly they went to the Chief Exectutive of the Organisation, mistakenly beleiving that their issues would be addressed in a mature and professional manner. Instead they found the door to their complaints firmly locked, with an invisible sign reading: ‘We reject emphatically as unfounded any suggestions that there’s anything wrong here’.
They were bemused, they all knew that things were amiss, they’d been attending this mental health service for many years. They knew, for example, that one of the Volunteers was actually living, illegally, in the building, and had been for years. He wasn’t as the Organisation would later hastily claim ‘a caretaker’ (a position they bestowed after the fact). They knew that there was no supervision of Volunteers and that one was systematically rude and abusive towards service users and staff, indeed the whistleblowers had first hand experience of this behaviour.
They knew that the unprofessional treatment by senior management had lead to one service user being taken on ‘special holidays’, and that there had been some kind of ‘fibbing’ which allowed someone to receive services above and beyond what was deemed acceptable. They were aware that the funding the Organisation received depended on certain recovery based criteria and they knew, from firsthand experience, that this simply didn’t happen.
They had a very long list of things they knew, and they wanted to expose the culprits and make be part of transforming the environment into a safe and healthy place for people to come to. They approached the trustees, and were, unsurprisingly, brushed off. By this time some of the staff had labelled them ‘troublemakers’ and were ensuring that rumour of their complaints reached the ears of other people dependent on the service; vulnerable adults for whom the centre provided, if little else, a place where they had friends. The scaremongering tactic employed ensured that these people were lead to believe that the ‘whistleblowers’ were out to have the centre closed down, and that former staff were colluding and enabling them to engage in this programme of what the most senior manager would term – “attack”. Hence the ‘whistleblowers’ found themselves berated, scorned, and being accused of making accusations against the Organistation because they were ‘mentally ill‘.
Despite being ‘banned’ from using the centre for various trumped up or vague reasons, the ‘whistleblowers’ were undeterred. They went to their local PALS (Patient Advice and Liaison Services), whom they allege agreed that matters were not in order, and there were concerns about the organisation, but again these were fervently denied by the management of the organisation, who blamed the former staff member for inciting and using the ‘whistleblowers’ for their own vindictive reasons.
Next step for the ‘whistleblowers’ was the NHS trust who were partially responsible for the funding of the organisation. Meetings with senior executives were arranged and full investigations promised. Indeed the organisation’s own public records show it was investigated on several occasions. By this time one the ‘whistleblowers’ in particular was finding that she was being ignored when she emailed or wrote to anyone within the trust, staff in other areas of the organisation were warned to keep her away from events and under no circumstances to speak to her. She was being written off as a mentally ill nuisance and experienced mental health staff were not only accepting that it was perfectly ‘okay’ to treat her in this manner, but actually complicit in supporting these managerial orders. She remained stoically set on her path to expose the Organisation, she met with NHS trust executives, but became increasingly aware that she was being humoured, belittled and ignored.
Another found herself an Advocate, and arranged meetings with someone appointed by the Organisation, a Human Givens practitioner, and then by another ‘Management Professional’ employed by the Organisation, and even Chief Executive of the NHS trust. She was a ‘veteran’ of the service she was whistleblowing, she’d known people there for over 20 years, she’d lived on the streets with the Service Manager, she’d been a trusted confidant of staff, volunteers and other service users. She was, however, someone who had been subjected to several instances of verbal abuse and had see so much more, she had ‘credible’ witness statements, testimonials and more. Her strong sense of justice was driving her to take the matter as far as possible. She too found herself patronised, ignored, vilified by friends and her attempts to tell the truth written off as the ramblings of a mentally ill victim of manipulative disgruntled former staff members.
This example is only a snapshot of what happened to these vulnerable adults who, by their own volition and sense of justice, attempted to blow the whistle of the bad practices of a charitable organisation. The Organisation bonded as if preparing an imminent disaster, and a cringeworthy submissiveness overtook professional staff who forgot everything they too knew to be wrong, and amiss. They were as submissive pack animals, fearful for their own position, livelihood and reputation. They sold out the whistleblowers in the same way as they had turned a blind eye to the organisation’s treatment of the staff member whose treatment there had resulted in these Service Users setting out to expose the charity.
So again I ask the question, who protects the whilstleblower? Not the CQC, they ignored them, not POVA, they ignored them, and regretfully, not me.
Today I am horrified that I didn’t do more to ensure that these individuals were heard, and wonder what I could have done differently. I was the staff member they were trying to help. Sure I was fighting my own battle, the Organisation were ensuring that I too was written off as a ‘nutter’. My attempts at exposing what I knew were blocked and cut off and made to look like the actions of an unstable individual.
My attempts to whistleblow to someone not involved with the organisation, along with a highly respected mental health professional and former colleague were heard by someone with whom I later discovered had strong personal links with most senior manager. My concerns and examples of mistreatment of service users were brushed off.
My amateur attempts to induce conversation between the person at PALS, who had indicated concerns and individuals within the NHS trust resulted in my looking unprofessional and stupid – by then I was scared by the vitriol of the Organisation, but still set on ensuring they were investigated, and I failed miserably. I had a lot to learn.
Further attempts to expose them via the NHS trust resulted in another former colleague and friend finding herself accused of colluding with me, being subjected to hearing accusations against me which she knew to be untrue and to this day, the person then employed by the Organisation, a relation of hers, is estranged from her.
Although several years ago now, this excercise in whistleblowing left behind a trail of victims and damage; the people using the service who have over the years suffered at the hands of people within the organisation and both the reputations and health of the whilstleblowers themselves.
It is hugely irresponsible for an NHS trust to call out for people to whilstleblow when it is unlikely they will to be called to account by a higher authority. It is unbelievably naive to think that as an individual you can hand over your concerns and assume they will be treated with respect and investigated honestly and accurately. More likely you’ll be tipping them off to something they’ll quickly take steps to cover up and when you attempt to escalate your concerns, you’ll mysteriously find yourself treated as someone with an incredible imagination and a grudge, or even worse as an unstable mentally ill person.
Until there is a method by which someone can whistleblow safely, where there is strict accountability, and where investigation is completely independent I can only see more corrupt organisations flourishing, and those people who stand up to them, those with the absence of insidious or treacherous cunning, which goes hand in hand with a clear sense of right and wrong, becoming the guileless victims of venal ‘professionals.’
To those who tried and suffered in Exeter – I applaud your assiduousness and say that for you guys never was there a truer sentiment than “Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, “I will try again tomorrow.”