Autistic man 'let down' by council
Thursday 09 June 2011
A social services boss has apologised after a High Court judge ruled that a local authority unlawfully detained a 21-year-old autistic man by keeping him in a care unit for nearly a year.
Linda Sanders, director of social care at the London Borough of Hillingdon, accepted that Steven Neary and his father Mark, 52, had both been "let down".
Mark Neary, of Uxbridge, north west London, wept after Mr Justice Peter Jackson concluded that the council had breached Steven Neary's human rights by keeping him away from home.
He described the ruling as "fantastic" and praised journalists who had highlighted his son's case.
The judge had been told, during a week-long hearing at the Court of Protection in London in May, how Mark Neary had been involved in a care battle with Hillingdon Council for more than a year.
Lawyers said the dispute started after Steven Neary went into a "positive behaviour unit" in December 2009.
Mark Neary told the court that he viewed the move as temporary - and thought that his son would be home by late January 2010. He said he felt "powerless".
The council said care staff had concerns about Steven Neary's "challenging" behaviour and weight - and argued that the move was intended to be for a longer period.
Steven Neary stayed at the unit for about a year - returning to his father's home in December 2010 following a court order.
The judge said the council had agreed that Steven Neary should remain at home - details of a care plan were being finalised.
Speaking outside the High Court in London, Mrs Sanders said: "I would like to apologise to Steven and his father.
"It is clear that there have been times when we have let both of them down.
"Cases such as Steven's are hugely complex and we always have to carefully balance what we think is right for an individual with the wider issues such as the safety of the public.
"As the judge has said in his findings, at all times my staff were genuinely committed to ensuring that we did the right thing for Steven and had his best interests at heart.
"The failings were collective errors of judgment not the result of individual staff.
"We recognise that we need to improve our processes and that we should have kept Steven's father more involved during the time that we cared for Steven.
"We have already made significant changes relevant to this case and we are reviewing our training for those staff who deal with the complex issues relating to the Mental Capacity Act and Deprivation of Liberty safeguards.
"We will also carefully consider all of the judge's comments to see if there are any further changes we need to make to improve our processes.
"Steven has now been at home for over six months and we will do all we can to support him and his father so they can live a safe and happy life, which has always been our intention."
Mark Neary, a counsellor, said he hoped the judge's ruling would help people fighting similar battles with local authorities.
"I'm relieved, tearful, satisfied," he said after the ruling. "I feel vindicated.
"Since this got out I have heard there are a lot of other people in similar positions.
"Hopefully people will read this judgment and be prepared to fight for the rights of their kids.
"I knew Steven should be at home because I know Steven. But there was always more of them than there was of me. But once the legal people got involved they agreed that he should be at home."
He added: "Before that, I was always outnumbered I would go to case conferences but they were just about me agreeing to whatever they (council staff) had decided. I would come out of these meetings in despair.
"But I stuck to my guns. I always believed that being at home was in Steven's best interests."
He praised journalists, adding: "We would not be here today if it had not been for the press involvement.
"The press have been totally supportive and coverage of the case has not harmed Steven at all.
"I don't think Steven really understands what it has all been about. For him he just likes seeing his pictures of himself on television and the internet."
Mr Justice Peter Jackson said Steven Neary had childhood autism and a "severe learning disability" and required supervision and support at all times.
He said Mark Neary and his wife Julie had "accepted" increasing levels of professional support as their son's needs became "more evident".
Mr and Mrs Neary had separated in 2009 and Steven Neary had gone to live with his father in a flat in Uxbridge.
Mr Justice Peter Jackson said Steven Neary needed the help of local authority social workers.
"The demands of such high levels of care are beyond even the most dedicated parents on their own, and particularly for a one-parent household where the parent works full-time, as Mr Neary does," said the judge.
"As a result, Steven depends both on his family and on social services - he cannot do without either.
"Since 2007, the Adult Social Care Department of the London Borough of Hillingdon has provided extremely high levels of support to Steven and his parents.
"Until 2010... this was delivered as part of a genuinely co-operative partnership with the family."
The judge said Hillingdon Council worked with around 1,300 adults with disabilities and added: "Anyone who believes that the work is simple and the right decision's always obvious is mistaken.
"Giving high-quality support to people with such complex needs is a subtle and demanding task.
"In the vast majority of cases, it is carried out without fuss, fanfare or public congratulation, but that can be forgotten when attention understandably turns to cases where things have gone wrong.
"In this judgment, I am necessarily critical of decisions taken by Hillingdon in relation to Steven during the year 2010. But even during that year, Steven received committed care and Mr Neary would be the first to say that some tremendous results were achieved during what was otherwise an unhappy time for all.
"A fair-minded observer will therefore want to view my conclusions about recent events against that general background.
"Steven will need social work support throughout his life and Mr Neary and Hillingdon will need to work together.
"Taking recent mistakes out of that context would be unfair, and unhelpful to Steven and his family."
The judge said he had heard evidence from a "service leader", the support unit manager, carers, a psychiatrist and Mark Neary.
"Having read all those records and heard the evidence of social workers, I am satisfied that everybody concerned had genuinely wanted to do the right thing by Steven at all times, and that a lot of hard work has been done to achieve this," said the judge.
"The problems arose from mismanagement, not from lack of commitment."
He said the council argued that it had the right to keep Steven Neary in the support unit and that it was in his "best interests".
The council said that between January and April 2010 it had Mark Neary's consent and between April and December 2010 it had granted itself a series of "deprivation of liberty" authorisations which "clothed it with legal entitlement".
But the judge rejected Hillingdon's arguments and found that "Steven was deprived of liberty throughout (2010)".
He concluded that Mark Neary had not consented and "authorisations relied upon were flawed".
"Hillingdon had no lawful basis for keeping Steven away from his family between 5 January and 23 December 2010," said the judge.
"The fact that it believed that it was acting for the best during that year is neither here nor there.
"It acted as if it had the right to make decisions about Steven, and by a combination of turning a deaf ear and force majeure, it tried to wear down (Mark) Neary's resistance, stretching its relationship with him to almost breaking point.
"It relied upon him coming to see things its way, even though, as events have proved, he was right and it was wrong.
"In the meantime it failed to activate the necessary safeguards that exist to prevent situations like this arising."
The judge said evidence showed that Steven Neary had suffered no significant or long-term harm, although the events had been "distressing for him and his father".
"However, things might easily have turned out differently," the judge added. "By the summer of 2010, Hillingdon's plan was to send Steven to a long-term placement somewhere outside London which could have caused irretrievable damage to his family ties."
The judge added: "It is very troubling to reflect that this approach might actually have succeeded, with a lesser parent than Mr Neary giving up in the face of such official determination.
"Had that happened, Steven would have faced a life in public care that he did not want and does not need."
He said the council had breached Steven Neary's rights under the terms of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The judge said the case gave rise to "practice issues" for those "working in the field".
He said "things had gone well" since Steven Neary returned to his father's home in December 2010.
"It is now agreed that Steven will remain at home with high levels of support," said the judge. "Detailed plans for the future are being finalised."
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