Northern Ireland news

Health service bosses deny 'culture of silence' at Muckamore in abuse scandal

Marie Heaney (left), director of adult social and primary care, and Brenda Creaney, director of nursing at the Belfast health trust, spoke to The Irish News about the abuse scandal at Muckamore Abbey Hospital in Co Antrim. Picture by Hugh Russell
Seanín Graham

TWO of the Belfast health trust's most senior directors have denied that a 'culture of silence' existed at Muckamore Abbey Hospital - despite horrific abuse of patients that went unreported for months.

Director of nursing Brenda Creaney and Marie Heaney, director of adult social care, also insisted that their positions are tenable after an expert report raised serious concerns about the management of the Co Antrim facility, for which the trust is responsible.

Muckamore, an inpatient hospital which cares for adults with severe learning disabilities, is currently at the centre of the biggest criminal adult safeguarding investigation of its kind in Northern Ireland, with the National Crime Agency assisting the PSNI in the massive probe.

Physical abuse of seriously ill patients by healthcare professionals in a psychiatric intensive care unit at the regional facility was captured on CCTV between March and September last year.

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Ward staff, including nurses, healthcare assistants and hospital managers, were unaware the cameras were recording at the time - a fact described as "remarkable" by the author of scathing NHS report into the scandal, which concluded that patients' lives were "compromised".

Concerns were also raised about nepotism, with many of the staff related and said to be fearful of "grassing" on each other, with the report noting that "the primary loyalties of people who are related or in intimate relationships are unlikely to be to the patients".

To date, eight registered nurses and five healthcare support workers have been suspended from the hospital.

In an interview with The Irish News yesterday, two days after details emerged of the damning independent review, both directors accepted that if it were not for the CCTV footage the abuse would never have come to light.

Disturbing details of patients "lying on the floor and being kicked" and of others being kneed in the groin and "dragged by the hair" are outlined in the expert 'Serious Adverse Incident' review alongside failings of hospital managers who dismissed families' suspicions of abuse as "implausible".

"We were astonished, shocked and horrified that a small number of people were conditioned or socialised into normalising this behaviour (of abuse)," Ms Heaney said yesterday.

"A lot of these incidents happened out-of-hours, at weekends and occurred after 5pm. The report clearly shows a culture of a range of factors that can't be easily explained... But I don't accept there was 'a culture of silence'."

In October, The Irish News obtained detailed written notes of a private meeting between the review team and families, in which a male member of the team referred to a "culture of silence" at the hospital - in the context of other problems such as nursing shortages and lack of planned activities for "bored" patients.

He said: "None of that of course helps us to understand the culture of silence that went on in Muckamore but it does help to understand the understand the contributory factors..."

Both Ms Creaney and Ms Heaney were present at the meeting but said they "did not recall" the phrase being used.

The nursing chief added that there had been a "history" of people making abuse allegations of abuse at the hospital which she felt she had dealt with appropriately.

" We had already been managing safeguarding concerns including patient-on-patient abuse and staff-on-patient abuse. There was abuse reported to us last September - and coincidentally there was CCTV which was going through a 'test' phase," Ms Creaney said.

"It showed a small number of staff perpetrating physical acts on patients, there seemed to be a small number of people who witnessed it and did not report it.

"I have to say this have been very challenging for all the families but I am glad we have that CCTV evidence because we can now take appropriate action. Prior to that we didn't have that concrete evidence."

The directors said there had been a complete overhaul of services at the hospital, with highly-skilled agency nurses travelling from England and a whole new range of activities for patients, such as music therapy, art and swimming.

CCTV has now been installed across every ward in the hospital, which is close to Antrim town.

Families affected by the abuse of their loved ones have repeatedly called for a public inquiry and accountability from the "top down" since the allegations were first revealed in The Irish News in the summer.

When asked yesterday if she felt her position was tenable given that the majority of those suspended were her staff and that the crisis had taken place 'on her watch', Ms Creaney said she was "very aware" of her responsibilities in relation to "the safety of patients".

"I don't shy away from my responsibilities," she said.

"I'm also confident I took appropriate action as soon as this was brought to my attention. I also took action to to refer individuals to the regulator (which resulted in nurses being suspended from working for 18 months).

"We act on information we know, we acted immediately when we got the information and certainly we have to act on fact and analysis."

Ms Heaney added that she took "full responsibility" for the changes "that need to happen" but she thought it was a "matter for the police investigation" in relation to holding people to account.

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