Northern Ireland care home safety can't be guaranteed for residents, says NHS whistleblower
Some of Northern Ireland's most vulnerable people are being failed by the NHS watchdog, a whistleblower has claimed.
The health care assistant has said she is disgusted at the litany of abuse and neglect uncovered at Dunmurry Manor - despite assurances from health officials several years before that steps would be taken to protect residents of care homes across Northern Ireland.
She said: "I've been doing my job for over 20 years. I love my job and I'm good at my job, but I will never work in another care home again because it is impossible to guarantee the safety of residents under the current system."
A former employee of Cherry Tree House in Carrickfergus, she made repeated complaints about conditions at the home - including to the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA) - while working there.
She subsequently took part in an independent review looking at the response by officials in relation to concerns about the facility between 2005 and 2013, which resulted in 22 recommendations.
Claire Keatinge, the former Commissioner for Older People in NI (COPNI), carried out her own investigation and called for an overhaul of Northern Ireland's care system in her report published in November 2014.
She made a series of recommendations.
These included swift action by officials when a care provider continues to fail to meet minimum standards, better support for whistleblowers and relatives who make complaints, and more information to be available about the role of the RQIA and other relevant authorities.
However, last month the current Commissioner for Older People issued a damning indictment of conditions at Dunmurry Manor.
Revealing his findings of inhumane and degrading treatment, Eddie Lynch also criticised health officials for failing to implement the recommendations made by his predecessor.
Describing examples of resident-on-resident sexual abuse, malnutrition, unexplained injuries and residents left to sit in urine-soaked clothing, Mr Lynch said much of the suffering could have been avoided had organisations such as the RQIA responded sooner.
The whistleblower from Cherry Tree Manor said she was disappointed and frustrated by Mr Lynch's report.
"After the Cherry Tree review, the RQIA made all sorts of promises to us, staff and families, about what they were going to do to improve things," she said.
"We went along to meetings with the RQIA and I felt quite positive that things were going to change but then when you hear about Dunmurry Manor, you realise things are just as bad.
"I feel like the Cherry Tree review was a complete waste of time, like nothing was learned and nothing has changed.
"I feel angry and let down, although to be honest I wasn't overly surprised by the commissioner's findings.
"I know girls who work in homes today where residents are suffering but they are too scared to speak out. They look at me and see what happened to me and think, 'what is the point?'
"I basically lost my job because I spoke out and these girls see that and think that if I wasn't able to change anything, then they won't be able to change anything either.
"When you complain you are risking your job, it's your mortgage, your life, that is at risk, but I can't stand back and watch people suffer."
The whistleblower also said she could not understand the stance taken by RQIA in the wake of the COPNI Dunmurry Manor review.
RQIA said it did not accept all of the commissioner's findings and rejected claims the RQIA had failed.
A spokesman from the organisation said that following the Department of Health's Cherry Tree House review, 14 recommendations were made specifically to RQIA. All of these had been fully implemented by 2015.
The spokesman added: "Interviews with staff across health and social care form an important part of our inspections, and RQIA welcomes the open feedback staff provide.
"RQIA also operates a dedicated duty inspector telephone number, who staff can contact to seek advice or raise concerns about a health and social care service."
Meanwhile, a Department of Health spokeswoman said all health bodies have whistleblowing policies based on a document published in November 2017.
She also said that NHS employees are protected from being dismissed or penalised for speaking out about concerns about health and safety.