Care home staff convicted after disabled residents were ‘kicked, punched and stripped naked'

Vulnerable adults routinely held in empty rooms without food, heating or a toilet in conditions likened to 'training an animal', court hears

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The Independent Online

More than a dozen directors and staff at two care homes in Devon have been sentenced in relation for the “organised and systematic” abuse of vulnerable residents. 

Atlas Project Team Limited ran the Veilstone and Gatooma homes in Holsworthy, providing care for residents with significant learning disabilities.

But a series of trials at Bristol Crown Court heard that between 2010 and 2011 residents were "repeatedly and systematically detained in seclusion rooms which had no heating or toilet facilities, and little or no furniture, sometimes for several hours at a time or even overnight", according to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).  

Directors and staff were accused of creating a culture where “systematic neglect” was the norm, with one mother saying her 25-year-old disabled son told of being “kicked, punched, stripped naked” as well as having water poured on him locked in a room.

The legal proceedings have been going on for five years, but the convictions against 13 directors, managers and staff can only been reported now after restrictions were lifted.

Huw Rogers of the CPS said of the case: “This case has been ground-breaking in that the directors and managers of the homes and not just the staff that implemented their policies have been held to account.”

At the start of the first of four trials, Andrew Langdon QC, prosecuting, said the view had been taken by staff that the residents had "somehow learned how to behave badly" and that this behaviour "had to be unlearned".

“If they were kept there [in the isolation rooms] long enough they would learn a lesson and change their behaviour. A bit like someone might try to cure the behaviour of a badly behaved animal,” he said, adding that once they were allowed out of the rooms they were ordered to carry out tasks such as cleaning to “test compliance”. 

QC Langdon went on to claim that residents were sent to the rooms at the Veilstone and Gatooma homes, both isolated former farmhouses, for “trivial reasons: staring at a staff member, facial twitches, asking questions repeatedly, missing a hair appointment could all be triggers for residents to be sent to the rooms”.

Among those convicted were Paul Hewitt, the founder of Atlas and a well-known figure in mental health who helped formulate national policy on caring for people with learning disabilities in the community.

He told the court he did not know residents were being locked up, but he was convicted of a health and safety offence, fined £12,500 and ordered to pay costs of £105,000.

Jolyon Marshall, a director, was sentenced to 28 months in jail for conspiracy to falsely imprison and perverting the course of justice. Other members of the management team and staff were given suspended jail terms or other non-custodial sentences for various offences.

Passing sentence last year, Judge William Hart said the treatment amounted to “systematic neglect”, adding that the conduct of those convicted had “cast a dark shadow over people’s lives”. 

He told the court: “It became a way of life – it became the norm, a habit. Rather than care in the community it became lack of care in the community and systematic neglect. The residents didn’t like it. The phrase that comes back to me, ‘If you kick off, you get the quiet room’.

"It was used as a form of punishment and they were distressed and in discomfort when left in the room. Eventually they complied but that had no therapeutic value. There were many that benefited from the Atlas regime but the way that the rooms became used was not beneficial. Those two rooms cast a dark shadow over people’s lives.”

Clare Garrod said her son Ben, now 25, had been “kicked, punched, stripped naked” and had water poured on him locked in a room after moving to Vielstone from the Winterbourne View hospital which was shut down in 2011 after a separate investigation exposed abuse. 

At Winterbourne she said he had his jaw fractured and lost teeth. But after moving to Vielstone, she said the family was not granted contacted with Ben for five weeks, something which immediately set “alarm bells ringing”. 

“They asked for two weeks without any contact, which we didn’t really agree with, but we did take that one," she told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme. "After five weeks, we were still not in contact with him, so very early on, we knew this wasn’t the place we wanted him to be. They made many, many excuses. He’s unsettled or you’ll upset him, or he’s been misbehaving. Alarm bells were ringing very early on."

She added that the home would still frequently cancel visits and that her son often appeared afraid to go back.

“He had a lovely time with us, but when they came to pick him up, he looked terrified every time,” she said.

It was several years after Ben had left the home, that he revealed what had happened to him.  

“He said one day: ‘Mum, can you get your computer’. He’d been listening to an Emilie Sande song and he said is it nice to laugh through the glass, and I said it depends if people are being kind or not and it just all came out," said Ms Garrod. “That’s the thing. They think these people haven’t got a voice, but actually he can tell anything he wants, when he feels safe."

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She added: "It was awful. He told me how he’d been treated. Kicked, punched, stripped naked, water poured on him locked in a room, he told me theyd lock him in and say mind the spiders don’t eat you. It was cold, he was hungry sometimes, very scared. It just broke my heart.”

Ben is now with a “good provider”, she said, adding he is still “damaged”.  

"It’s going to take an awful long time," she said. "This is five years now already. He’ll never recover, ever, but he’ll have to learn to trust."

Mencap and the Challenging Behaviour Foundation, two charities that have been supporting families of the victims involved while working closely with the police throughout the investigation, described the evidence as “chilling”.

In a joint statement following the trial, they said: “The evidence has been chilling. 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. These trials have brought into sharp focus the unacceptable attitudes and lack of respect for people with a learning disability that exists in society.”

Alison Millar from law firm Leigh Day, who represented Ben and several other former residents of the Devon care homes, 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.”

Detective Chief Inspector Sheon Sturland from Devon and Cornwall Police said: “This case has been very complex and in many ways is the first of its kind in this country, dealing with not just those workers directly involved with victims, but all the way up to owners, directors and senior managers, who allowed a culture of abuse to exist."