‘I’ve been treated like the accused’: NHS nurse reveals 8 years of hell after raising sexual harassment claims

Exclusive: Nursing regulator took years to address reports of alleged sexual harassment from a nurse, reveals Rebecca Thomas

Tuesday 06 February 2024 20:15 GMT
The NHS nurse fighting to be heard | On The Ground

A nurse has described her eight years of hell as she fought the NHS over its failure to properly investigate claims she was sexually harassed by a colleague.

Michelle Russell, who has 30 years of experience, first raised allegations of sexual harassment by a male nurse to managers at the mental health unit where she worked in London in 2015.

Years of battling her case saw the trust’s initial investigation condemned as “catastrophically flawed” while the nursing watchdog, the Nursing Midwifery Council (NMC), apologised for taking so long to review her complaint and referred itself to its own regulator over the matter.

With the case still unresolved, Ms Russell will see her career in the NHS end this week after she was not offered any further contract work.

Speaking to The Independent she said: “If I’m going to lose my job, I want other nurses to know that this is what happens when you raise a concern. I want the public to know this is what happens to us in the NHS when we are trying to protect the public.

“I have an unblemished career. They’re crying out for nurses. I’ve dedicated my life to the NHS. I haven’t done anything wrong.”

Former Labour health minister Ann Keen condemned the way in which Ms Russell had been treated: “This can’t be right. How is this happening?

“Pillars of society, letting not just one nurse down, but also potentially [failing] public safety. How, again, has it been demonstrated, that the NHS is not taking sexual abuse seriously?”

Have you been impacted by this story? email rebecca.thomas@indepenendent.co.uk

Michelle Russell has collected a dossier of documents throughout her eight-year fight

Roger Kline, who has led several major cultural reviews for the NHS, said: “It’s one of the worst cases I’ve seen where discrimination has been met with denial, avoidance and retaliation.

“Instead of dealing with allegations the trust brutally turned on her. This is not remotely how we should deal with allegations of sexual harassment made by competent experienced professionals. It has disgracefully ended Michelle’s nursing career.”

It shows “the general inability of the NHS to deal with sexual harassment until very recently. It is a scandal,” he added.

New figures show that the NMC is facing a growing backlog of 5,711 cases in December – up from 5,463 in June.

Last year our investigation revealed claims that a “culture of fear” in the NMC was leaving rogue nurses free to abuse patients. As a result of the stories, the NMC has launched three independent probes.

Ms Russell had worked as a nurse at North East London Foundation Trust (NELFT) for 20 years. However, in 2015, after months of alleged “unwarranted” touching and “inappropriate” behaviour from another nurse, she decided to report her concerns to her manager.

A full 12 months later, the trust’s HR department told Ms Russell her allegations were not upheld. During this time, she went off sick leave and as a result of being away from clinical duties for so long was unable to work as a nurse under NMC rules.

Throughout that time, Ms Russell said: “I was treated as the accused. I was isolated from any support that I may have had. It was like I had to explain why I didn’t move [during the incident]. Describe and draw on the desk what my personal space looked like.”

Her comments come in the same week as The Independent revealed tens of thousands of allegations of sexual assault and harassment have been recorded in mental health hospitals.

Despite her setback, Ms Russell persevered, determined for her story to be heard.

Standing in the rain outside parliament in 2018, holding a sign that read “I’m a nurse who was sexually assaulted at work and I’m going to lose MY job” she had a chance encounter with the NHS’ most senior nurse Ruth May.

This encounter prompted the NHS England executive to launch an independent review into North East London Foundation Trust’s investigation which later in July 2018 found the hospital’s report was “catastrophically flawed” and that it failed to understand its own HR policy on sexual harassment.

Michelle Russell has worked in the NHS for 30 years

The catastrophic flaws also included trust officials communicating directly with Royal College of Nursing Officers who were representing both Ms Russell and her accused, which was against trust policy.

It also found the actions of the trust’s investigator had a “lack of impartiality” towards the issues Ms Russell had alleged and found the handling of her complaint was so “clumsy” it led to the breakdown of relationships and undermined the possibility of the nurse returning to her job.

A third independent report, by a consultancy called Vista commissioned by NELFT, finished in 2019 and upheld Ms Russell’s allegations, finding the male nurse’s behaviour “amounted to sexual harassment” and that “some aspects could be categorised as sexual assault”.

Both reports and a suspension letter cite allegations of inappropriate behaviour by Ms Russell’s alleged harasser involving the relatives of patients, one of which was withdrawn. The NELFT said it has not received any formal reports involving families, while the NMC claimed it could not find evidence of such claims.

In a statement to The Independent, NELFT said it had accepted the findings of the investigations in full, and taken the issues raised by Ms Russell “extremely seriously” and as a result has put in place new sexual safety policies and improved its oversight and training.

It claimed it had no direct formal complaints from patients or family members over the nurse.

Ms Russell first referred the nurse to the NMC in 2016. However, a year later, she found the NMC’s screening team had closed the case “without further investigation”.

Two years later the regulator reopened the case after a determined Ms Russell travelled to its offices and refused to leave until officials looked into the NHS England review.

During the investigation, Ms Russell’s GP was forced to write to the NMC and condemned it for failing to carry out its investigation in a “trauma-informed way”, a letter seen by The Independent shows.

The NMC’s delays worsened and it was not until July 2023 – after four years – that the NMC brought a fitness to practice hearing against her alleged harasser. In that period it found two other staff members at NELFT had made allegations of inappropriate verbal comments against the same alleged harasser.

However, Ms Russell claims the NMC failed to investigate properly as it did not submit the NHS England review and Vista reviews as evidence to the fitness to practice hearing. The regulator said it was not able to establish direct evidence for the additional patient-related concerns in the reviews.

However, the defence was able to submit extracts from the first “catastrophically flawed” review by the hospital during the hearing.

Andrea Sutcliffe, chief executive of the NMC

Ms Russell says she was devastated after the NMC’s panel said her allegations could not be proved. The NMC’s panel did find there was a case to answer for a less serious allegation by one of the other two staff members.

The panel said there was not enough evidence to prove her claims on the “balance of probabilities”.

Since then, the NMC has referred itself to its regulator – the Professional Standards Authourity – on the basis that its independent panel’s decision in Ms Russell’s case “is not sufficient to protect the public”.

She launched an employment tribunal claim against NELFT over its failures. This claim led to a settlement agreement in September 2022 for her to move to NHS England on secondment and for her post at NELFT to be filled. Next week that secondment will come to an end.

Andrea Sutcliffe, NMC chief executive and registrar, said: “I know it’s been an extremely difficult time for Ms Russell and on behalf of the NMC, I’m sorry this case took too long. There’s no place for sexual misconduct in society, and we took the concerns Ms Russell raised with us very seriously.

“We considered the evidence carefully and decided there was a case to answer, and we made that case at a hearing. However, an independent panel decided that the charges we brought in relation to Ms Russell were not proved. Understandably that has been very distressing for Ms Russell. We’ve asked the Professional Standards Authority to review the panel’s decision.”

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