Councils slammed over care commissioning after abuse trial

POOR COMMISSIONING by a number of local authorities and weak inspection allowed an "abusive culture" to develop at care homes where 13 people have been convicted of abuse, charities have said.

A series of trials at Bristol Crown Court heard that adults with learning disabilities were subjected to "organised and systematic" abuse at two care homes in Devon run by Atlas Project Team, which included being routinely being held in punishment rooms, sometimes overnight, without food, heating, furniture or a toilet. The offences took place at Vielstone near Bideford and its sister home Gatooma near Holsworthy between 2010 and 2011.

Ten men and 14 women were prosecution, with 13 convicted of charges including false imprisonment, conspiracy to detain and falsely imprison, and perverting the course of justice. Jolyon Marshall, manager of the Vielstone home, was jailed for 28 months.

Andrew Langdon QC, for the prosecution, said staff tried to correct residents' behaviour as though training an animal.

Soon after the allegations were made, Atlas Project Team went into administration and no longer operates. Residents were transitioned to alternative care arrangements.

Vivien Cooper, chief executive of the Challenging Behaviour Foundation, which gave evidence to three court cases over the past year, and Jan Tregelles, chief executive of Mencap, said it had taken too long for the "horrific" abuse to be exposed.

"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," they said in a joint statement.  

"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 added that the trials have "brought into sharp focus" the unacceptable attitudes and lack of respect that people with learning disabilities endure.

"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," the statement said.

"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."

Andrea Sutcliffe, chief inspector of adult social care at the Care Quality Commission, welcomed the convictions and said major changes have been implemented in inspections since 2011.

"When the abusive practices were discovered, CQC took decision action but we should have responded more quickly to the concerns raised earlier by someone using the service," she added.

"Since then, we have overhauled our regulatory approach; improve 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."