Mother of Muckamore patient accuses health service and regulator of failing vulnerable people - comparing facilities to 'jail'

Catherine Fox has hit out at the regulator and health service over the "terrifying" conditions her vulnerable daughter was subjected to as a patient in Muckamore Abbey hospital. The regional facility is currently under investigation following allegations of staff abusing patients. Picture Mal McCann.
Seanín Graham

THE MOTHER of a woman with learning disabilities has described how she was left "traumatised and terrified" while being treated in a hospital at the centre of an abuse scandal - equating a seclusion room to "jail".

Catherine Fox from west Belfast said she made complaints about the care of her daughter Alicia (29), who also has a brain tumour, to the healthcare watchdog about the "frightening, dismal" conditions she was placed in at Muckamore Abbey hospital outside Antrim town.

The 59-year-old grandmother accused the regulator and the health service of "failing" her daughter after she was left "black and blue" after being attacked by another patient. She also claimed a member of staff physically abused her.

Alicia was discharged earlier this year to a different care facility where she is "doing much better", according to Mrs Fox.

"My daughter's mental health deteriorated to the worst it's ever been during her three years in Muckamore. I visited her every other day and her hair wouldn't have been washed, she had no underwear on and her basic care needs were not being met. She was also bitten by another patient and punched.

"But it was like beating my head of a brick wall trying to protect my daughter...I know there were some good nurses up there was just not enough staff. I was genuinely terrified about safeguarding."

A total of 13 staff, the majority of whom are nurses, have been suspended from the regional hospital while a police probe is investigating 70 incidents of "ill treatment" captured on CCTV from a Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) between March and September last year.

Earlier this month The Irish News revealed that an independent expert hired to probe safeguarding problems at Muckamore concluded it was a "high risk setting" where vulnerable patients have a one in four chance of being "harmed".

Mrs Fox (59) criticised the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA), saying she felt her concern about the overuse of seclusion - a room where a vulnerable patient is confined to 'manage' their behaviour - "fell on deaf ears".

The Belfast grandmother approached a RQIA team while they were carrying out an unannounced inspection of the facility in December two years ago.

Read more: Father of patient whose case sparked abuse probe learns '30 incidents' of ill treatment linked to his son's care

"When Alicia was transferred to PICU (psychiatric intensive care unit) I went up one day and she pointed to a staff member standing in the ward. She used a word meaning the person had abused her. I held her and told her she was going to be okay but I also knew that nobody was going to believe her," she said.

The seclusion room at Muckamore Abbey Hospital

"When she was in PICU she was put in seclusion at some point for 90 minutes. She was completely traumatised and terrified and kept saying 'they put me in jail'. I asked to see the seclusion room myself.

"I was led down a dark, thin corridor. There was a big brown door and a tiny room with a leather chair. I sat on the chair and was horrified - I can understand why my daughter was so afraid. It was an environment that could only conjure up images of fear and punishment. There was a big buzzer in the middle of the room for patients to press - I pressed it but it was broken. I was told someone was 'always outside the door'."

Mrs Fox said she feels "vindicated" by the findings of the independent report, which warned of the extreme overuse of placing patients in "unmonitored" seclusion - comparing it to "prison" for three patients who were kept there "for most of their life" in 2015.

While the report will never be made public, the damning conclusions were shared with families at a private briefing.

Detailed notes taken at the briefing by a parent were shared with the Irish News and also reveal Ms Flynn's concern at the role of the regulator.

She said: "We were interested and somewhat dismayed to discover the RQIA don't have an overall picture of the hospital. (Their) reccommendations hinge on individual wards."

The Irish News put Ms Flynn's views to the RQIA as well as the safeguarding issues raised by Mrs Fox.

In a statement, a spokesman for the regulator said "safeguarding" was a matter for other health service bodies and police.

A RQIA spokesman said: "Responsibility for investigating adult safeguarding concerns lies with Health and Social Care trusts and the PSNI, in line with the regional safeguarding protocol. The unacceptable, abusive behaviours uncovered at Muckamore, and referred to the PSNI for investigation, were not displayed during RQIA's unannounced inspections at this service."

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