13 convicted of 'organised and systematic abuse' of disabled care home residents
Thirteen directors, managers and staff at two care homes have been convicted of imprisoning disabled adults in empty rooms to punish or control them, it can be reported.
An abusive culture developed in which vulnerable residents were left alone for hours on end with little food or water by managers and staff at the homes in Devon.
Last year, 24 defendants were prosecuted during four trials at Bristol Crown Court and proceedings concluded on Wednesday when the Crown offered no evidence against the final two accused.
It is thought to be the first time directors have been prosecuted alongside staff.
A total of 13 people were convicted of the "organised and systemic abuse" of disabled residents at the Veilstone care home in Bideford, and Gatooma, in Holsworthy, in 2010 and 2011.
They included co-director Jolyon Marshall, 42, his wife Rachel, 32, and several managers.
Paul Hewitt, 71, the founder of Atlas Project Team, was convicted of a health and safety offence.
During the trials, the directors and staff were accused of creating a culture whereby residents were left alone in empty rooms more than 1,000 times - with no heating, furniture, TV or toilet - for hours at a time.
Staff tried to correct residents' behaviour as if they would train an animal, with prosecutor Andrew Langdon QC describing it as the "Atlas culture".
"The prosecution say that each of them was effectively imprisoned in that room against their will," he said.
"It was not a one-off but organised and systemic abuse of people with learning disabilities - vulnerable members of society who were residents in homes that were meant to care for them."
The rooms were known as either the "garden room" or the "quiet room".
Mr Langdon said: "Whatever the original purpose, these two rooms were used by staff to control - perhaps to even punish - residents at a time that was not only unacceptable by professional standards of care but was also quite unnecessarily cruel."
Hewitt was described as a "respected figure" who was a qualified psychiatric nurse and behavioural therapist.
At the time he ran seven care homes in Devon and Berkshire. Hewitt sold Atlas for £3 million to his two sons and other directors in a management buyout in 2006 but continued to describe himself as the managing director.
The "balloon went up" when one former resident contacted the watchdog, the Care Quality Commission, in July 2011 and the police became involved.
The CQC carried out unannounced inspections the following October and the two homes were later closed. Atlas has since gone into administration.
"The prosecution say it was an insular world and it led to a culture of care that was in effect abusive," Mr Langdon said.
"The residents were not inmates, they were residents, and whatever the challenges their behaviour created, each of them at all times should have been treated with respect."
The company was paid as much as £4,000 a week per resident.
Gatooma had an income of nearly £700,000 a year while Veilstone produced annual revenue of £1.2 million. Atlas Project Team had a turnover of £6.5 million in 2011.
During the trial, some of the seven victims - who were only known by their initials of AF, AC, BP, LO, HI, JM and WB - gave evidence.
Seven defendants were acquitted and prosecutors did not seek retrials against four others after the panel failed to reach verdicts.
Passing sentence last year, Judge William Hart said: "Having heard the evidence during these trials, I can only conclude that for many years the Atlas homes were well run and were able to provide a service for the most challenging people in our society.
"There is no doubt that Atlas had an impressive reputation. It could offer care to people with severe learning disabilities that others could not.
"At some point the wrong turn was taken which allowed the quiet room and garden rooms to be used.
"It became a way of life - it became the norm, a habit. Rather than care in the community it became lack of care in the community and systematic neglect.
"The residents didn't like it. The phrase that comes back to me, 'If you kick off, you get the quiet room'.
"It was used as a form of punishment and they were distressed and in discomfort when left in the room. Eventually they complied but that had no therapeutic value
"There were many that benefited from the Atlas regime but the way that the rooms became used was not beneficial.
"Those two rooms cast a dark shadow over people's lives."
Huw Rogers, from the Crown Prosecution Service, said: "The directors and managers at the Atlas care homes created a culture of abuse - unlawfully detaining residents in very poor conditions for long periods of time.
"This case has been ground-breaking in that the directors and managers of the homes and not just the staff that implemented their policies have been held to account.
"The CPS has worked tirelessly throughout this complex case in partnership with the police to achieve a successful outcome and justice for the victims.
"I would like to thank all those who have supported the prosecution case and in particular the residents of the homes and their families."
Detective Chief Inspector Sheon Sturland, from Devon and Cornwall Police, said: "This case has been very complex and in many ways is the first of its kind in this country, dealing with not just those workers directly involved with victims, but all the way up to owners, directors and senior managers, who allowed a culture of abuse to exist.
"We welcome the outcome of the court process. It sends a very clear message that abuse of any kind against vulnerable people - whether as an individual or as a result of an institutionalised culture - will not be tolerated.
"Those who commit such crimes will be thoroughly investigated and brought before the courts to face justice.
"The whole investigation team's thoughts are with the victims and their families. I hope now that they can have some closure after those involved have been brought to justice."