If people with learning difficulties and/or autism generally face exclusion, those in prison, secure hospitals and secure care homes are some of the most excluded, unseen and unheard people in society. The Winterbourne View scandal exposed by BBC’s Panorama revealed how vulnerable this group is to abuse and neglect.

bemix Director Tina Walker, whose own story of traumatic experience in secure care is shared in the film The Balance of Rights, led us in reaching out to this excluded group in Kent. In early 2017, she worked alongside Keith Wyncoll, a family carer of an autistic child with high support needs, to create a Forum gathering people living in three secure settings.

“It’s important to change attitudes, to value people and give them a voice.” - Tina Walker

Fellow Director Ann-Marie Lillis brought her own experience of life with a learning difficulty to the forum when Tina took maternity leave. Under her and Keith’s leadership, the Forum ended earlier this year with people having made new friends, shared their experiences, and gained greater vision to move on from care and be seen, be heard and belong in their communities. Commissioned by Kent County Council, the forum is also influencing the future direction of services. It takes the Council a step closer to truly co-producing services - professionals and people who need services combining their respective expertise as equals to create the best solutions.

We completed this work encouraged by the hopefulness of people and the quality of support, but also troubled by the limited vision some people had after many years in hospital. The lack of freedom to make everyday choices most take for granted was a source of frustration and anger. A person might simply want to get out and play football each week, but without staff to take them, they’re shut indoors.

In getting to know people, it was clear that daytime activity with purpose is what really transforms wellbeing and reduces risky behaviour. There are opportunities in Kent people simply can’t access. So we’re asking commissioners: Do care providers have the expertise to access strong community networks? Does activity come last in budgets and priorities, despite its impact? Do people spend too much of the week ‘on campus’? Does a single care provider feel ‘parental’?

We’re also proposing solutions, including a community networking project to enable people in secure care to access a wider range of creative, leisure, voluntary and skills training activities. This would include building people’s confidence to try new things, and encouraging positive risk-taking by providers.

We hope the forum will be the start of greater work to give people the voice they deserve and that commissioning needs. As one member summed up: “The Forum has helped me to have the vision that I could have a life outside hospital.”

Download the short report from the forum here.