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Four staff at specialist hospital guilty of mistreating vulnerable patients

The trial took place at Teesside Crown Court (Owen Humphreys/PA)
Katie Dickinson, PA

Four members of staff at a specialist hospital have been found guilty of mistreating vulnerable patients after an undercover BBC Panorama documentary.

Five other staff members were cleared of all charges following an investigation into alleged abuse at Whorlton Hall, a 17-bed independent unit for people with complex needs near Barnard Castle, County Durham.

Nine people were charged with a total of 27 offences after a reporter used a hidden camera at the hospital unit in early 2019.

Teesside Crown Court heard patients who were detained under the Mental Health Act, and who required 24-hour care, were distressed as they were verbally abused, mocked and wound up by some of the staff at the hospital.

Opening the case to jurors in March, prosecutor Anne Richardson said: “It would appear that there was something of a culture of inappropriate behaviour within Whorlton Hall at the relevant time.”

The BBC sent reporter Olivia Davies undercover to work at the unit in 2019, using a hidden camera for a Panorama documentary, to show the care offered by staff.

One defendant said on camera he had invented an imaginary “man button” to summon male staff for a female patient who had clearly said she did not want men to look after her.

Prosecutors said Peter Bennett, 53, showed off to colleagues and used the threat of the “man button” to wind up the patient and to make her comply.

Jurors heard he said he would issue staff with balloons, as he knew the patient did not like them.

Miss Richardson said Ryan Fuller, 27, was heard to call a different resident a “bitch”, and when he heard of more patients coming to the unit he spoke of “how much fun he would have with them, and said ‘more abuse’.”

John Sanderson, 25, said he had repeatedly unplugged a patient’s phone while the resident was speaking to his sister, resulting in the patient becoming so agitated he smashed up the phone.

Miss Richardson said: “The Crown does not suggest that the defendants were ill-treating all of the residents all of the time – caring for those within Whorlton Hall was not an easy job.”

She told jurors the defendants have “largely indicated that they received minimal training, that the hall was understaffed and that those they cared for were extremely challenging”.

Fuller, 26, of Deerbolt Bank, Barnard Castle, was found guilty of two charges of ill-treatment of a patient, but cleared of eight.

Sanderson, 25, of Cambridge Avenue, Willington, was found guilty of one charge of ill-treatment of a person in care, and not guilty of another.

Bennett, 52, of Redworth Road, Billingham, was convicted of two counts of ill-treatment of a patient, and cleared of one.

Matthew Banner, 43, of Faulkner Road, Newton Aycliffe, was found guilty of five counts of ill-treatment of a patient, and not guilty of one.

His wife Sarah Banner, 33, from Faulkner Road, Newton Aycliffe, was cleared of three counts of ill-treatment of a patient.

Darren Mark Lawton, 47, of Miners Crescent, Darlington; Niall Mellor, 26, of Lingmell Dene, Coundon, Bishop Auckland; Sabah Mahmood, 27, of Woodland Crescent, Kelloe; and Karen McGhee, 54, from Wildair Close, Darlington, were cleared of all charges.

The four defendants who were convicted will be sentenced at the same court on July 7.

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