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Thursday, 08 June 2017

'Unacceptable attitudes' towards people with learning disabilities 'must change'

Written by Rod Minchin

Health campaigners have called for changes in how society treats adults with learning disabilities following the scandal at two care homes in Devon.

They said that vulnerable adults were often subjected to solitary confinement, forcefully restrained and given anti-psychotic medication when they were not mentally ill.

Jan Tregelles (pictured), chief executive of Mencap, and Vivien Cooper, chief executive of The Challenging Behaviour Foundation, blamed poor commissioning by local authorities and a weak inspection system for the scandal.

"Throughout the three trials last year, juries have listened to horrific accounts of people with a learning disability being abused by those who were being paid to support them," they said.

"The evidence that has emerged has been chilling. The survivors and their family members have been brave and dignified throughout the five-year build-up to these trials and 11 months of legal proceedings.

"Atlas Project Team claimed to provide specialist care for people with a learning disability, at a cost of up to £4,000 per week per person.

"Staff were paid to care for people with a learning disability but instead of doing so, imprisoned them repeatedly for long periods, often in cold rooms with no sanitation.

"Despite several warning signs, it took far too long for the abusive practices at the care homes to be exposed.

"Poor commissioning by a number of local authorities and weak inspection allowed an abusive culture to develop and sustain itself, with devastating consequences for individuals and their families."

They said the families of the Atlas victims had waited more than five years for justice and commended Devon and Cornwall Police for a thorough investigation.

"These trials have brought into sharp focus the unacceptable attitudes and lack of respect for people with a learning disability that exists in society," they said.

"Across the country thousands of people with a learning disability, autism and behaviour that challenges are still subject to unacceptable practices, including the use of dangerous restraint techniques, the administration of anti-psychotic medication when they don't have a mental illness and the use of solitary confinement.

"This environment, which enables commissioners to spend thousands of pounds per week of public money on the wrong type of services with no accountability, must change."

The treatment of some vulnerable adults within residential settings was exposed by the BBC's Panorama programme in 2011 with its undercover investigation into the scandal at the Winterbourne View private hospital.

Since then the Government has ordered the closure of 1,000 beds at assessment and treatment units like Winterbourne View.

Lawyer Alison Millar, from law firm Leigh Day, is representing several of the former residents.

"We believe this is a significant verdict for the future welfare of people in residential care," she said.

"These criminal court proceedings against Atlas Projects Ltd founder Paul Hewitt and Atlas managers and employees underline the legal responsibilities those who manage and profit from care facilities have for the physical and psychological well-being of their residents.

"It also highlights the responsibility of those public bodies who failed these vulnerable individuals by not commissioning appropriate facilities and therefore should retain responsibility for the services they have contracted out.

"These verdicts against the owners and managers of Atlas Projects Ltd and those they employed are a reminder that health and safety legislation protects the rights of the most vulnerable and we would call on the Government to ensure that more is done to strengthen such safeguards."

Andrea Sutcliffe, chief inspector of adult social care at the Care Quality Commission, welcomed the sentences.

"Atlas and a large number of their staff utterly failed in their duty to look after the people in their care," she said.

"No-one should be subject to the degrading abuse people experienced and I am glad that the perpetrators have been recognised for the criminals they are.

"When the CQC inspected Veilstone in October 2011, inspectors were so concerned by the treatment they discovered that they quickly extended the inspection to all 15 of the services run by Atlas.

"We found serious concerns in most of their care homes, including the routine use of excessive restrictive practices, which is why we took action which led to the closure of all of these services in 2012.

"Much has changed since 2011. When these abusive practices were discovered, the CQC took decisive action but we should have responded more quickly to the concerns raised.

"Since then we have overhauled our regulatory approach; improved the monitoring of services and the way we respond to safeguarding concerns; introduced a new and more thorough inspection process; increased the numbers of people with learning disabilities involved in our inspections; and strengthened our enforcement processes.

"We have also worked with The Challenging Behaviour Foundation on the issue of restraint and we now subject services where staff frequently resort to restrictive interventions to much tougher scrutiny than we did five years ago.

"The end of these trials is a chilling reminder that we must all remain vigilant to support and protect people in vulnerable circumstances who have every right to live their lives to the full, free from fear and treated with dignity and respect."

Sian Walker, independent chairman of the Devon Safeguarding Adults Board, said: "This has been a very complex case, and my thoughts today are with the victims and their families.

"Now that the police investigation and legal process has concluded, Devon's Safeguarding Adults Board will consider what additional lessons can be learned from this case.

"In response, the authorities acted promptly to ensure the safety of residents, and have worked well together in partnership with individuals, their families and carers to provide necessary support in safe environments that meet residents' needs."

A spokesman for Devon County Council said: "With hindsight it is clear that care standards at some of the homes fell far short of being acceptable, and as evidence of poor care came to light, we took robust action to ensure residents' safety while the police investigations and legal process ensued."

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