Police break silence over concerns about impact of Muckamore allegations on families
A HIGH-RANKING police officer has spoken for the first time of the "trauma" and "frustration" caused to families with loved ones at a Northern Ireland hospital at the centre of a lengthy abuse probe.
Superintendent Ryan Henderson, who is leading the investigation into Muckamore Abbey hospital in Co Antrim, also revealed that there has been a rise of almost 60 per cent in the number of "incidents" of ill treatment reported to detectives over the past two months.
A total of 110 cases are now being examined by the PSNI linked to CCTV footage between March and September last year - in which staff are allegedly physically abusing patients on a Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU).
Relatives of patients at the facility, which is the north's main hospital for adults with a learning disability, have raised concerns about the lack of progress and transparency in both the police probe and a separate health service review - which were ordered 14 months ago.
A total of 13 Muckamore staff have been suspended, the majority of whom are nurses. There have been no prosecutions while two files are with the Public Prosecution Service (PPS).
Up until now police have remained tight-lipped, except to comment briefly on the number of incidents and how it continues to "work alongside the trust".
However, in an unusual departure and in response to a query from the Irish News, Superintendent Henderson insisted his team were working "tirelessly" - and that "the protection of our most vulnerable is a priority for the Police Service of Northern Ireland."
Tens of thousands of hours of CCTV footage has been examined as part of the investigation - a process which he described as "painstaking" but one that he accepted must be difficult for families as they anxiously wait for information.
"I am very sensitive to the trauma and impact upon the families whose loved ones are at the centre of this investigation and from the outset have been committed to working closely with them. We will continue to work with the families to keep them informed as much as we possibly can," he said.
"At this stage there have been 110 incidents reported to police. We continue to work through every one of those reports to see where there have been criminal offences committed.
"This can be a painstaking and lengthy process which I recognize at times will cause frustration for the families. However I would like to take this opportunity to assure them and the public that we are working tirelessly to bring this investigation to a conclusion."
Officials at the Belfast health trust held a meeting with a cross-party group of politicians last week, which was also attended by police.
Assembly members including the SDLP's Mark H Durkan and Sinn Féin's Colm Gildernew attended the meeting, and called for an independent high-level report to be given to affected families.
Known as a Serious Adverse Incident (SAI) report, its lead author is Margaret Flynn who was also involved in the Winterbourne View review investigation in Bristol, which led to six care workers being jailed over abuse at a residential facility.
The Irish News revealed last month that Ms Flynn privately told relatives at a briefing that following her year-long probe, she has concluded that Muckamore is a "high risk setting" where patients have a "one in four chance of being harmed".
The Belfast trust has repeatedly apologised to families and patients affected since the allegations were first made public in July.
In a statement, a trust spokesman said they hoped to meet families in "coming weeks" to "share the (SAI) report and the learning and changes needed".