Without a care

What happens when care workers are sexually assaulted by those they are looking after

4th February 2021

“I felt very belittled and upset,” Claire*, 41, tells The Overtake. “I have been put in many awkward situations before but this one really threw me. I felt in a right crap situation between duty of care and also a human wanting to belt it out of there.”

It was the second time Claire had met Tony*, a man in his mid-70s who required care due to having both legs amputated. She was asked to look after Tony by a care company, who told her that he needed to be with a carer for at least an hour everyday from Monday to Friday. 

She first met Tony on a Friday; she went by to his house with another care worker and they had a laugh — nothing out of the ordinary after 11 years in the care industry, although it was the first time she’d cared for an amputee. After being assured one carer was enough, Claire visited again on Monday, like she’d been told. But this time was different. 

When she arrived at his house, Tony was in his bedroom. He called her in. When Claire opened up his bedroom door the first thing she noticed was that Tony’s electric chair was empty and nowhere near his bed. When she looked at his bed, she was taken aback. 

Tony was sitting on his bed masturbating, as if he’d been waiting for Claire to come in; as if he’d been planning it all day. She politely asked him to stop, to which he responded, “No, I’m not hurting anyone.” It’s important to note here that Tony is of full mental capacity and his need for care is purely a physical one. Fighting her intuitions with the understanding that she was there for a reason, that Tony needed help getting into his electric chair and leaving him alone might be dangerous, Claire attempted to get on with what she’d been told to do. But Tony didn’t stop. 

While she was cleaning him, he continued to masturbate, placing almost too much of his body weight on Claire as he did. After she lay him back down, he asked her if she’d help him out — he’d pay her more if she did. Again, Claire politely refused and asked him to stop. He couldn’t, he said, because he was about to finish. Then, Claire had to clean up after him. 

While this story might sound shocking, it’s just another day in the office for many care workers. 

Speaking to Colin Angel, Policy Director of the United Kingdom Homecare Association (UKHCA), it’s clear there are policies and practices put in place to keep care workers out of harm’s way. “Sexual assaults on paid care workers are relatively rare but are a serious concern for both the worker and their employer, who has a responsibility for safety while at work,” he told The Overtake over an email. 

“In the event of an assault, the individual care worker’s personal safety is the primary concern.

“In cases where there are concerns about a client, for example the local authority is aware that a client may pose a risk to care workers, the local authority should pass that information onto the employer and work with them to ensure care at home can be provided safely.” 

In Claire’s case, she did report the incident to both Tony’s family and the care company. She was taken off the job and apologised to profusely. However, this level of care unfortunately didn’t extend beyond Claire. “[The family] sent male carers in after and he never did anything like that, but they couldn’t get a male carer one day and they sent a woman in — he did the same to her and she never went back.”

Colin adds: “In all situations, the worker should report an alleged assault to their employer without delay. They will be asked to provide an initial statement about what happened. This can be extremely distressing for the individual, but we would expect employers to do this sensitively and in a way which feels safe for the worker”. But reports aren’t always taken seriously enough, and care workers’ safety seems to be less of a priority. 

On a daily basis, care workers are expected to deal with the types of behaviour — like what happened to Claire — that definitely wouldn’t slide in a real office environment. But, even when they do report it, they’re often told it’s just part and parcel of being a carer.

Molly*, 22, a care worker from Merseyside, tells The Overtake that while she hasn’t experienced it personally, she’s heard stories from her colleagues who have been told to monitor patients who were masturbating over them, “even though we’re the ones who he’s masturbating over”. 

Other than a few comments here and there, there was one particular incident that stood out to Molly. “I was working with one girl and as I walked down the stairs she groped [me from behind].”

Molly was in complete disbelief — she couldn’t believe what had just happened. She told her managers as soon as she could, that she had been sexually assaulted, but she says they completely downplayed it and told her that it wasn’t sexual assault. Molly felt as though her personal space had been invaded, and she was shocked that something like that had happened in her place of work. But mostly, she was disgusted that her managers didn’t seem to care.

“I just feel as if I wasn’t valued [or] respected as a member of staff by her or the other staff,” she says. “The police were there anyway because one of the kids went missing and they saw it and also did nothing.

“It’s just seen as acceptable in the care industry. The whole industry is a joke anyway. We get the blame for everything… we’d be assaulted and it would be our fault.”

While care workers feel the weight of their duty of care, it seems to be that their employers don’t always feel they have a duty of care for them.

Psychologist and emotional resilience expert, Linda Sage — who has been a care provider both personally and professionally — says that for a care worker to be in a position like Claire’s, and have to deal with what she went through, usually amounts to a lack of training. Especially when it comes to agencies and umbrella companies. 

“A lot of agencies send care workers in, and they don’t give them proper training,” Linda explains. “Because they’re not directly employed by these umbrella companies, there’s a lot of grey areas”.

Linda believes that, while a level of abuse is somewhat “part and parcel” of the job of a careworker, a lack of care for staff by such companies is a “big, big issue”. A lot of agency care workers have a lot of responsibility for very little pay. If they are told to sort out their own training (including payment for it), they might not always be able to afford it. 

“They (agency care workers) fall between the lines,” she adds. “If you are with a reputable company, they will put on the training – they might charge you for it and you have to pay it, but they’re paying you standard rates, so that you get this. 

“But because they don’t employ you directly, and where they put you in to go to work, but don’t employ you so they won’t provide the training either.”

Even when a care worker has had substantial training and experience — like in Claire’s case — there should always be a risk assessment. But, according to Claire, there was “no risk assessment at all,” which is painfully clear not only in what happened to her but that it happened again.

Colin notes that, following the event of abuse or sexual harassment, “Arrangements to support the affected careworker are also needed”. According to Colin, the support given must be tailored to an individual’s “trauma experience” and will often involve “the assistance of the police and specialist support services”.

But policy means nothing if it isn’t implemented. Just like Molly, Claire received absolutely no emotional support after reporting her experience. 

For Linda, care workers need to take it upon themselves to look after their mental wellbeing. “If your employer offers supervision or in-house support that is great,” she says, “but don’t wait for them to provide it.”

She feels that looking after yourself, especially as a care worker, should be seen as an investment and not an expense, but she does acknowledge that many carers find it difficult to seek out support on their own. “Most caregivers cannot access support easily, sometimes they are not open to looking for it either, with the ‘I’m OK [and] I’m fine’ attitude, denial becomes a comfortable place to live. 

However, this is not sustainable and in the long run, burnout is inevitable though totally preventable”. 

She urges carers to seek out professional emotional support from someone who is both a registered therapist and makes them feel comfortable. 

It’s undeniably heartbreaking that many carers, like Claire and Molly, aren’t getting the support they need and deserve. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that care workers are the unsung heroes of this country. They work long hours for low pay and little thanks and accept more abuse as part and parcel of the job than most of us could fathom. When it comes to tackling this essential job, Linda says: “Redefine your boundaries to care for yourself as much as you care for others, because prevention is always better than cure and you only get one life – make the most of it”.

4th February 2021