Staff at a private NHS-funded hospital for people with learning disabilities pinned patients to the floor and used tactics akin to “psychological torture” to bully them into compliance, an undercover investigation has found.
The Independent revealed earlier this month that police had launched an investigation into “physical and psychological abuse” at Whorlton Hall, County Durham, which had seen 16 staff suspended.
Secret filming by the BBC’s Panorama, whose reporters went undercover at the hospital for two months between December and February, has revealed some of the abuse which occurred.
This includes patients being threatened with violence, insulted and restrained in a manner which experts dubbed cruel punishment and the “absolute antithesis of good care”.
The programme also filmed six members of staff apparently bragging about times they had deliberately hurt patients on previous occasions.
One member of staff claimed to have banged a patient’s head on the floor while another bragged of performing a “clothesline” wrestling move on someone in their care.
In another scene from the programme, two members of staff singled out a woman patient who is scared of men and told her that unless she was quiet they would summon more men to her room.
“I think it is like psychological torture, because she is stuck there, she can’t get away,” Professor Glynis Murphy, an expert in clinical psychology and disability at the University of Kent told the programme.
Another expert said the examples of restraint fell short of what should be allowed, with patients pinned between a member of staff’s knees for 10 minutes while several other workers looked on.
Whorlton Hall was previously run by the company Castlebeck, a major provider of specialist services for people with learning disabilities which collapsed in 2013 after Panorama exposed abuse at another of its homes, Winterbourne View.
The hospital is currently operated by Cygnet Health Care, but it acquired Whorlton Hall after absorbing learning disability and autism care specialist the Danshell Group in 2018. Another former Danshell property now run by Cygnet, Thors Park in Essex is also facing a police abuse investigation which has seen one man charged.
A Cygnet spokesperson said: “We are shocked and deeply saddened by the allegations made against members of staff at Whorlton Hall, part of the Danshell Group, which Cygnet recently acquired.
“This appalling behaviour is entirely inconsistent with Cygnet Health Care’s values and high standards and we remain absolutely committed to delivering the highest quality healthcare, which our patients and residents expect and deserve.”
Cygnet said it notified the police and other authorities as soon as the allegations came to light, and it had now taken the decision to move patients to alternative hospitals.
Cygnet, the UK arm of US-based Universal Health Services, makes millions from NHS-funded care in secure mental health and social care facilities for some of the most vulnerable patients.
The Care Quality Commission (CQC), which inspected Whorlton Hall in 2018 and rated its services “good”, launched a review of other properties run by Cygnet, The Independent revealed earlier this month.
“On this occasion it is quite clear that we did not pick up the abuse that was happening at Whorlton Hall,” CQC mental health lead Dr Paul Lelliott told Panorama. “All I can do is apologise deeply to the people concerned.”
In the wake of the Winterbourne View scandal, the government committed to closing specialist facilities for people with learning disabilities and autism, saying care would be better provided closer to patients’ homes and families.
Although bed numbers have been reduced from 3,400 to 2,300, this is well short of the target the government set in 2015 of cutting beds by 35 per cent.
“It is horrifying that this has been allowed to happen,” Barbara Keeley, Labour’s shadow minister for mental health and social care, said.
“After the Winterbourne View scandal the government pledged to close such units, but eight years later we have another case of horrifying abuse. These are not isolated incidents, as other recent scandals at centres such as Mendip House in Somerset show.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said it could not comment on the active police investigation but added: “We treat any allegations of abuse with the utmost seriousness.”
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