National Autistic Society downplayed allegations against staff in meeting with relatives, says family
Thu 28 Mar 2019 12.16 GMT
Last modified on Thu 28 Mar 2019 18.35 GMT
The parents of a vulnerable autistic woman staying at a flagship care home where residents were taunted, bullied and humiliated, claim they were misled by the charity running it over the scale of abuse.
The couple say they met with the National Autistic Society’s chief executive, and a senior staff member at Mendip House, in Somerset, but the allegations of abuse against staff were downplayed and not fully disclosed.
The retired couple – whose 44-year-old daughter suffers from severe autism as well as catatonia, a condition which sometimes renders her unable to move – said they were left “deeply shocked” to discover the extent of the abuse some 18 months later.
A damning report detailed how workers threw objects at residents as well as teasing and swearing at them. One whistleblower even claimed that a resident was slapped, forced to eat chillies and repeatedly thrown into a swimming pool. In another case a staff member was said to have put a ribbon around a resident’s neck and ridden him “like a horse”.
Earlier this month it emerged that Mendip House, which housed six residents before it was closed, had escaped prosecution over the failings but the charity was fined £4,000 by the Care Quality Commission (CQC) watchdog. The CQC said there was insufficient evidence to prosecute.
The charity’s CEO, Mark Lever, is stepping down in May after 11 years but denied it was anything to do with the National Autistic Society’s handling of Mendip House. On Friday, campaigners are due to protest outside the charity’s headquarters.
Barbara Keeley, the shadow minister for mental health and social care, is calling on the government to launch an inquiry into the abuse at Mendip House. She said: “It is utterly horrifying that the National Autistic Society has tried to downplay the appalling and dehumanising abuse meted out to vulnerable people.
“The families of residents at Mendip House who were subjected to such cruelty deserve answers, not least why the events of a case which amounts to ‘Winterbourne View without the cameras’ took so long to uncover and why there have been no prosecutions to date.”
A review in January 2018 by the Somerset Safeguarding Adults Board into Mendip House detailed how one member of staff offered the couple’s daughter a cake and then took it away. The daughter also paid £715 for staff meals during outings, which she was subsequently reimbursed for.
The parents, who wish to remain anonymous, do not know the extent of their daughter’s exposure to the abuse but are sure she witnessed it. “She has a lot of empathy, she’s very sympathetic to things that are going on and she would be really worried about it but not know what to do about it. She’s completely helpless,” her mother explained.
Although they praised some staff at the home, the parents did raise concerns about the care of their daughter, who had been staying there for over 20 years. They say she twice had to be taken to hospital after being attacked by fellow residents, and on one occasion in 2014 was left in a car by staff for 13 hours.
In 2015, the mother complained about a “laddish culture” among some members of staff but claimed no action was taken.
In early June 2016, they and other relatives were called to a meeting by the charity after receiving a letter saying that “allegations had been made”. A whistleblower had gone to the charity in May alerting it to abuse allegations.
At the meeting, Lever and the head of operations for adult services, Hannah Barnett, sought to downplay the allegations, it is claimed.
“They would not tell us what the allegations were [but] that the manager and some staff had been [suspended],” the mother said.
“It was basically ‘nothing to worry about’, so actually we came away quite reassured. The bad people have been suspended and that was going to be sorted out. It just seemed, OK, they’ve got it all in hand.
“We were told they couldn’t tell us anything, what the allegations were, because it was an ongoing thing. But we believed them when they said it wasn’t anything to worry about.”
However, the mother said they were “all deeply shocked when they saw how bad the abuse was” when the safeguarding report was published 18 months later.
“It was serious ill-treatment of our kids. If that report hadn’t come out we wouldn’t have known any of this. I feel let down mostly because I had great faith in the National Autistic Society,” she said.
Their daughter has since been moved to a new home but the family is still “picking up the pieces”, she added.
Lever claimed at the time of the meeting the charity “did not know all the details” and were “limited in what we could say because there was an ongoing police investigation”. However, he conceded: “I think we could have referred to it as serious abuse. Perhaps the choice of language was designed to not worry parents. I think perhaps we could have been stronger on the language.”
He added: “We tried to be as open as we could be at the time and stressed that parents could raise any concerns or questions with us and we’d answer them as far as we were able … we updated families regularly … We’re very sorry to hear that the parents feel we misled them… This couldn’t have been further from what we intended.”
Lever said the charity was “very sorry” that the mother’s complaint about a “laddish culture” was not acted on and accepted it “should have been”, adding: “What happened at Mendip House was a combination of cruel and unprofessional behaviour by some staff and a failure to pick up on this quickly and put it right.”