Scale of abuse scandal at Muckamore was 'suppressed' last year, NHS chief reveals
FIVE months after the Irish News first revealed an abuse scandal at a Northern Ireland hospital, a fresh leak has exposed a disturbing culture which led to information about the scandal being kept hidden. Health correspondent Seanín Graham reports
INFORMATION about the scale of abuse at Muckamore Abbey hospital was initially "suppressed" by the Belfast health trust and not reported to the north's Department of Health, an NHS chief has revealed.
Explosive details of a meeting between Sean Holland, the department's chief social worker, and the father of an abused patient reveal he and his colleagues were not informed when the alarm was first raised last year and how a "tussle for information" emerged in trying to get answers from the trust.
Mr Holland told the Dundonald man there was a "significant period of time when information was being contained in Muckamore" and how he wrote to the trust's chief executive last September to raise serious concerns about how the trust was "handling" the crisis.
The father-of-four made detailed notes following the high-level briefing in Belfast in mid-September, which have been seen by The Irish News.
The Co Antrim hospital is now at the centre of the biggest criminal safeguarding investigation of its kind in the north after CCTV footage emerged of patients with severe learning disabilities being abused by healthcare staff last year. The National Crime Agency has been appointed to assist the PSNI.
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A damning independent NHS report given to families last week concluded patients' lives were "compromised". To date, 13 staff have been suspended from the regional facility for adults with severe learning disabilities.
At the September meeting, the parent asked Mr Holland if the department had been 'kept in the loop' about the scandal from when the alarm was first raised in August last year,
"Not initially," he replied.
He added: "We advised the permanent secretary Richard Pengelly last September (2017) that there appeared to be problems and they would need to be properly investigated.
"I wrote to the Belfast trust chief executive to tell him we were not satisfied with explanations and how this (was) being handled. I said we've concerns - you need to address these concerns'."
The NHS chief admitted that had it not been for the father complaining about the abuse carried out on his vulnerable son - and the subsequent tip-off to the department by the man's MP, the DUP's Gavin Robinson, last August - then departmental officials may not have have been made aware of the magnitude of the crisis.
Mr Robinson also attended the meeting which he had set up.
The department chief admitted: "The reality is we didn't know the scale of it until you contacted us last year. We should have known about it at that stage...I want to thank you for bringing it to us".
The man expressed his frustration to Mr Holland about getting information on his 22-year-old son, who was punched in the stomach last August, saying it was like "pulling teeth".
There was a delay in telling the Dundonald man about the assault. He was initially told it was a "one-off" and that there was no CCTV footage. It has now emerged there were 43 incidents of ill-treatment of his son over a three month period last year - all captured on CCTV.
Mr Holland said that once a senior team at the trust was appointed to probe the crisis there was more co-operation with the department.
"I think once you broke through a suppression of information within Muckamore to the senior team in the trust, then they did pick the ball up and run with it properly. But there was a significant period of time when information was being contained in Muckamore," he said.
Mr Holland told the parent that he would not use the term 'cover up' - but admitted there was information that was "never going up".
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"I can't say for certain but (there's a chance) the investigation would not have happened as rigorously as it did if you hadn't raised it," he said.
A second high-ranking NHS director at the department, Chris Matthews, also attended the meeting and expressed his frustration - with "months of going backward and forward" to the trust for answers.
"It became an internal tussle... with us asking repeated questions," he told the parent.
"We were getting a sense the the message we were receiving from the trust was not exactly a reflection of the reality."
He added how they quickly realised the abuse was not confined to a few incidents - but was "systemic".
Mr Matthews, who is the director of mental health and disability at the department, said the "trigger" for his probing came from a phone call he received from Mr Robinson on behalf of the man last August.
"I immediately went to trust and asked for (an) explanation... to be completely candid the answer we got back raised more questions than it dealt with," he said.
"Fortunately one of our social workers at the department had previously worked at Muckamore and was aware of the CCTV cameras."
Mr Matthews told the parent there was an "instinct" among the professional staff at the department that "something wasn't right about the story we were getting from the trust".
"We realised it wasn't not just one incident - but systemic issues going on. We were finding it difficult to get information - it shouldn't be that difficult for the department to get to the bottom of something - but the more we were pushing the worse the picture was becoming," he said.
Mr Holland said they did not receive a written response from the trust until November - almost four months after Mr Matthews first telephoned it for "an explanation".
"We got a letter about the course of action they were going to take but we kept meeting them," he said.
"We talked about the rigour that was needed - we thought it required a Serious Adverse Incident with independence."
The social worker added that since the SAI team had been set up there had been "no resistance" from the trust in terms of supplying information.
The parent singled out the input of the DUP's Mr Robinson last year, who he said "played a crucial role in pushing through and getting answers".
A spokesman for the Belfast Trust said last night it had been "clear from the outset that there was a delay - of 3 ½ weeks - in reporting this incident from the ward to management but as soon as it was reported to managers, swift action was taken to notify the PSNI, and the Department of Health through the process of our Early Alert System".
"The trust's seclusion policy in relation to Muckamore Abbey Hospital is currently under review by a multi-disciplinary team which will fully engage with patients, carers and staff," he said.
"We are very aware of all parents' need for answers and how stressful this is."
He added: "SAI reports are not published. Belfast Trust has shared in confidence the final safeguarding report on Muckamore Abbey Hospital with families of patients affected and the HSCB.
"We recognise there is a public interest in this and we have shared the recommendations of the report and a summary of the key themes in our media statement. It is the trust's intention that a fuller summary will be made available once other relevant parties have been apprised of it."
No one from the department was available for comment.