Muckamore Abbey Hospital: 1,500 crimes identified in just one ward
A year after The Irish News first reported on the allegations of mistreatment of patients at a Northern Ireland hospital, police have spoken for the first time about the unprecedented criminal probe. In an exclusive interview, its lead officer tells health correspondent Seanín Graham about the enormity of the task.
THE DETECTIVE heading up the PSNI investigation into the Muckamore Abbey Hospital abuse scandal has revealed 1,500 crimes have been identified - in relation to just one ward.
In her first interview since the scandal broke just over a year ago, Detective Chief Inspector Jill Duffie lays bare the "size and scale" of the probe into allegations of physical and mental abuse of vulnerable patients, confirming it is the "largest adult safeguarding case" of its kind within the Northern Ireland police service.
And she said they are now entering a "crucial" stage, with viewing of hundreds of thousands of hours of CCTV footage relating to the ward that sparked the probe almost concluded - and criminal interviews imminent.
To date, 20 staff - mainly nurses - have been suspended from Muckamore by the Belfast health trust for allegedly assaulting and inflicting cruelty on adults with a severe learning disability in 2017.
Detective Chief Inspector Duffie warned that such is the serious nature of the images captured on CCTV cameras - which staff did not realise were switched on at the time - that she expected further staff suspensions from the Co Antrim regional facility.
"Safeguarding primarily is the responsibility of the Belfast trust and those really are decisions for them to make - but I would imagine as we progress our viewing through to other wards that it will be inevitable that more staff may need to be suspended to safeguard patients," she told The Irish News.
The senior PSNI officer, who was appointed to lead the Muckamore probe as its senior investigating officer (SIO) in January, also said she "totally understood" the families' frustrations at delays and lack of arrests, but stressed the enormity of the case and complexity of viewing more than 300,000 hours of footage.
First complaints made to police in 2017
While the PSNI first received reports in the summer of 2017 about suspected staff abuse of patients, the "true picture" did not emerge until last September when a "deluge" of incidents surfaced, according to the lead officer.
"It appears as if we've been investigating for two years and we certainly did get some referrals through in August 2017. They were investigated as isolated incidents," she said.
"We had a drip-feed of information from the Belfast trust through our 'joint protocol' arrangement...it was then we connected the dots and realised the size and scale of the problem. Our specialist team was set up in September 2018.
"So while it's over two years since incidents happened it's important to realise it was reported retrospectively.
"We're concentrating at the moment on the incidents that happened in the Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) and to date we're investigating over 400 incidents.
"Within those 400 incidents, we're looking at approximately 1,500 crimes. Largely this relates to physical abuse of the patients, wilful neglect of patients and inappropriate use of seclusion...there has been no sexual abuse captured on the footage."
The dedicated team of detectives attached to the probe, which is now more than 20-strong, has been viewing the disturbing CCTV images "minute by minute" over the past year.
With the viewing of the secure six-bedded Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit almost complete, the unit are embarking on an investigation of three other wards.
"Because of the way the CCTV system is, it's motion sensitive and you have to imagine the amount of cameras that covered each ward and each camera angle - it's really complex," Detective Chief Inspector Duffie added.
"Every time the team come across an incident you have to pause, you to evidence it, identify the people involved, burn it off, and have it in a package so that we can criminally interview some for it and get it before the courts.
"We have a really good relationship with the families affected and I think the vast majority understand what we're up against...however I totally understand families’ frustrations at the length of time it's taken.
"If I could reassure them we are working through the CCTV diligently and really minute by minute to ensure nothing's missed and that we get a full picture of what exactly happened."
The senior PSNI officer also revealed her specialist team was liasing with detectives involved in the high-profile Winterbourne View and Whorlton Hall abuse cases in England that led to multiple prosecutions after undercover Panorama reporters secretly filmed staff.
"As a senior investigating officer in any major investigation, it makes sense that you reach out to other large scale adult safeguarding investigations that involve multiple victims and multiple suspects. You seek to see from your colleagues what went well, what worked, what could have went better and best practice really," she said.
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National Crime Agency involvement
Last December the National Crime Agency (NCA) also became involved and have assisted in providing "expert" support, particularly in recent weeks with alleged victims.
However, some families of affected Muckamore patients have compared the "slow pace" of the PSNI investigation with the swift police response to the Winterbourne and Whorlton Hall cases.
Within 48 hours of the BBC programme being broadcast on the 12-bedded Whorlton Hall facility in Co Durham earlier this year, there were 10 arrests, while the Winterbourne View scandal in Bristol saw six care workers jailed a year after the 2011 screening.
Detective Chief Inspector Duffie emphasised the vast difference in the scale of the criminal investigations into Muckmore - a regional NHS hospital facility - and the other two smaller private facilities.
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Winterbourne View had less than 150 hours of CCTV images, which were captured on shifts worked by a reporter over a five-week period - compared to the extensive Muckamore footage.
Detective Chief Inspector Duffie, who has seen much of the footage alongside her specialist team of detectives said it made for "difficult" viewing.
"It's difficult, there's no getting away from it...I've viewed a lot of the footage as have my team and their wellbeing is obviously a top priority. The work we do within public protection every day is difficult and traumatic - but the vulnerability of the patients involved in this incidents, some of the most vulnerable in society, makes it difficult to watch.
"But we're committed to the task in hand and that commitment keeps the team going. We've a wellbeing strategy in place to look after the officers, there are regular debriefs and our occupational health team has been involved heavily."
When asked how the unprecedented investigation had affected her personally, the senior detective was quick to answer: "It's made me very determined…and very committed to the investigation.
"I'm aware that we are dealing with definitely the most vulnerable members of society and in some cases they have no communication, they're not able to tell anyone what's happening to them."
With calls intensifying among families and politicians for a public inquiry, relatives have also demanded accountablity from the "top down" in the criminal probe.
DCI Duffie said: "We've been very clear from the outset that we will go wherever the evidence takes us, we will robustly follow up all lines of enquiry with regards as to how this happened at Muckamore and as to how the system allowed this to happen."