Further suspensions expected at Muckamore Abbey after 1,500 crimes identified in one ward
The detective leading the investigation into the Muckamore Abbey abuse scandal has said 1,500 crimes have so far been identified, all of which relate to one ward.
Speaking to the Irish News, the PSNI Detective Chief Inspector Jill Duffie said the probe into allegations of abuse of vulnerable patients is the "largest adult safeguarding case" of its kind within the Northern Ireland police service.
Viewing of hundreds of thousands of hours of CCTV footage relating to the ward is now almost concluded and the probe is now at a "crucial" stage, she said.
20 staff, most of whom are nurses, have been suspended from Muckamore by the Belfast Trust following accusations of assault and inflicting cruelty on adults with a severe learning disability in 2017.
Detective Chief Inspector Duffie warned that she expects further staff suspensions from the facility in Co Antrim after viewing the CCTV, which staff did not realise was switched on at the time.
"Safeguarding primarily is the responsibility of the Belfast Trust and those really are decisions for them to make - but I would imagine as we progress our viewing through to other wards that it will be inevitable that more staff may need to be suspended to safeguard patients," she said.
She said she understands the families' frustrations at delays and lack of arrests but stressed the complexity and enormity of the case.
"We had a drip-feed of information from the Belfast Trust through our 'joint protocol' arrangement...it was then we connected the dots and realised the size and scale of the problem. Our specialist team was set up in September 2018," she said.
"So while it's over two years since incidents happened it's important to realise it was reported retrospectively.
"We're concentrating at the moment on the incidents that happened in the Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) and to date we're investigating over 400 incidents.
"Within those 400 incidents, we're looking at approximately 1,500 crimes. Largely this relates to physical abuse of the patients, wilful neglect of patients and inappropriate use of seclusion...there has been no sexual abuse captured on the footage."
A team of more than 20 dedicated detectives have been viewing the CCTV footage over the past year and having almost completed viewing of the secure six-bedded Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit, are now embarking on an investigation of three other wards.
"Every time the team come across an incident you have to pause, you to evidence it, identify the people involved, burn it off, and have it in a package so that we can criminally interview some for it and get it before the courts," said Detective Chief Inspector Duffie.
"We have a really good relationship with the families affected and I think the vast majority understand what we're up against...however I totally understand families’ frustrations at the length of time it's taken.
"If I could reassure them we are working through the CCTV diligently and really minute by minute to ensure nothing's missed and that we get a full picture of what exactly happened."
The senior PSNI officer said her team is liaising with detectives involved in the Winterbourne View and Whorlton Hall abuse cases in England.
They led to multiple prosecutions after undercover Panorama reporters secretly filmed staff.
"As a senior investigating officer in any major investigation, it makes sense that you reach out to other large scale adult safeguarding investigations that involve multiple victims and multiple suspects.
"You seek to see from your colleagues what went well, what worked, what could have went better and best practice really," she said.
The National Crime Agency became involved in the probe last December and and assisted in providing support to alleged victims in recent weeks.
Some families of affected Muckamore patients have criticised what they described as the "slow pace" of the PSNI investigation in comparison to the Winterbourne and Whorlton Hall cases.
10 arrests were made within 48 hours of the BBC programme on the 12-bed Whorlton Hall in Co Durham earlier this year and six care workers were jailed a year after the 2011 screening of the programme on the Winterbourne View scandal in Bristol.
Detective Chief Inspector Duffie said there's a vast difference in the scale of the criminal investigations into Muckmore, which is a regional NHS hospital facility, and the other two smaller private facilities.
She said the footage, much of which she has seen herself alongside her detectives, makes for difficult viewing.
"It's difficult, there's no getting away from it...I've viewed a lot of the footage as have my team and their wellbeing is obviously a top priority. The work we do within public protection every day is difficult and traumatic - but the vulnerability of the patients involved in this incidents, some of the most vulnerable in society, makes it difficult to watch.
"But we're committed to the task in hand and that commitment keeps the team going. We've a wellbeing strategy in place to look after the officers, there are regular debriefs and our occupational health team has been involved heavily.
Detective Chief Inspector Duffie said she's aware that they are dealing with "definitely the most vulnerable members of society".
"In some cases they have no communication, they're not able to tell anyone what's happening to them. It's made me very determined…and very committed to the investigation."
"I'm aware that we are dealing with definitely the most vulnerable members of society and in some cases they have no communication, they're not able to tell anyone what's happening to them.
"We've been very clear from the outset that we will go wherever the evidence takes us, we will robustly follow up all lines of enquiry with regards as to how this happened at Muckamore and as to how the system allowed this to happen."
Belfast Telegraph Digital