Northern Ireland news

Muckamore inquiry: ‘Nothing like this can ever happen again'

An inquiry into the alleged physical abuse of vulnerable patients by staff at Muckamore Abbey Hospital in Co Antrim will begin its public sessions today. Glynn Brown, who was the first parent to raise the alarm, speaks to Social Affairs Reporter Claire Simpson about the biggest public safeguarding case in the history of the health service

Glynn Brown from Action For Muckamore. Picture by Hugh Russell

It was August 2017 when Glynn Brown first learned that that his youngest son Aaron, who is non-verbal and suffers from severe learning disabilities, had been assaulted in Muckamore Abbey Hospital.

He initially thought Aaron had been assaulted by a fellow patient and was shocked to hear from the hospital that the person responsible was a member of staff.

Mr Brown was even more stunned when he was told that the assault at the Co Antrim regional facility had happened around 12 days before.

Muckamore Abbey Hospital in Co Antrim. Picture by Mal McCann

"We (Mr Brown and his wife Karen) were visiting him three times a week every week," he said.

"We asked what their protocol was for reporting to next of kin and they said within 24 hours.

"That made me think there was something not right."

The 61-year-old, from Dundonald, said when Aaron (25) was sectioned and sent to the facility several years ago, the family were reassured that it was “the best staffed, best trained unit”.

"We didn't want him going in but we thought that if he was in and given the appropriate medication for four to six weeks it'll be worth it,” he said.

"We didn't realise that once your child is sectioned you lose total control.”

Mr Brown said after an initial meeting following the assault, he asked questions about Aaron’s care but was repeatedly frustrated by the answers he had received.

Later, the family was told that Aaron had been held in a seclusion room for several hours.

"We saw the room," he said.

"It was an old, dark dungeon with no toilet, no water. It shocked us.

"When I did FoIs (Freedom of Information requests) I found out Aaron had been in it 50 times.

"Patients are only supposed to be in it for a few minutes. It became a dumping ground.”

Muckamore Abbey Hospital in Co Antrim. Picture by Mal McCann

Mr Brown said he was told that CCTV cameras in the hospital were not switched on.

But in July 2018, a whistleblower contacted The Irish News about CCTV footage which reportedly showed abuse of vulnerable patients at the hospital in 2017.

A total of 13 staff were suspended.

The Belfast trust also apologised to patients and their families after footage allegedly showed patients being struck by staff and pulled to the floor by the hair.

A major police probe has seen officers trawl through thousands of hours of footage.

Mr Brown said he "lost count at 150 or 160 incidents" police identified on CCTV in relation to Aaron's case.

But the scandal continued to unfold.

In September 2020, after years of campaigning from angry relatives and threats of a judicial review, health minister Robin Swann agreed that a public inquiry would be established.

Mr Brown, who established the Action For Muckamore (AFM) support group, said he has been shocked by the scale of the scandal.

”When it started I didn't envisage that this would be the worst adult safeguarding case in NHS history - no way," he said.

"As you peeled back further and peeled back further it got worse.”

To date, more than 80 staff have been suspended.

The PSNI investigation has seen 34 arrests. A total of 38 people have been told that they are to be prosecuted in connection with the Muckamore probe.

The long-awaited inquiry will begin its public sessions in Belfast today.

Mr Brown said he wants the probe to expose the facts about what happened to vulnerable patients in Muckamore.

He also wants those responsible to held accountable.

Mr Brown contracted Covid last year and had to be hospitalised.

But he said he was more concerned about taking part in the inquiry.

“I was really worried something would happen to me,” he said.

“I wanted to be here so I could give evidence.”

He said he wants to see a "radical change" in how vulnerable people are cared for in Northern Ireland.

However, he said any changes should not be contingent on the outcome of the inquiry.

"We want to see massive root and branch change and that our kids are far far safer, are treated with dignity and that money is allocated on an appropriate basis," he said.

"There should be facilities in the community. Patients need to be properly looked after."

He said it is vital that facilities which look after patients with learning disabilities have working CCTV cameras.

“Staff should be wearing body cameras,” he said.

"Some patients can be volatile and aggressive and hard to handle. To protect the patient from abuse and to protect staff from false allegations wear a body cam.

"That would make a big difference."

Mr Brown said Aaron, who is now in a facility in Lisburn, has greatly improved since he left Muckamore.

"I can take him a run and get him chips, he'll be good as gold," he said.

"When he moved from Muckamore we were told it would be months before he settled. He settled like lightning.”

He also praised the group's solicitor for her work in pushing for an inquiry.

"We couldn't have done it without Claire McKeegan and her strategy and tactics to be honest," he said.

Ms McKeegan, of Phoenix Law, said it is critical that the inquiry "gets to the truth of how and why this breach of trust on a catastrophic scale against vulnerable adults could be permitted to happen and could continue”.

"The patients in seeking truth and answers were stonewalled at every turn," she said.

Ms McKeegan said patients have been let down.

”The clients that we represent have been hugely distressed in preparing for this process,” she said.

She added: "They felt helpless as to what was happening to their loved ones behind locked doors.

"Our clients are entitled to know what management knew and the leadership of the trust."

She said Muckamore remains a home to many patients "and people are still awaiting resettlement into communities".

"It is vital that this inquiry makes recommendations with teeth that can bite so that nothing like this can ever happen again."

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