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Muckamore inquiry: Witness warns structures enabling abuse still exist throughout health service


Muckamore Abbey Hospital

Muckamore Abbey Hospital

Muckamore Abbey Hospital

A woman has recalled how her disabled brother was subjected to a “Victorian model of care” over 25 years at Muckamore Abbey Hospital.

Martin was an inpatient and outpatient at the facility, after first being admitted for initial assessment in 1990 at just six years old.

Today, his sister Antoinette told the public inquiry into abuse at the hospital that her parents did everything they could to raise concerns about substandard care.

She recalled how Martin, who had an intellectual disability and exhibited autistic behaviour, was regularly pinned down by staff and forced to wear splints on his arms. 

“When he was six my parents removed him because another patient, a 16-year-old, liked to go into Martin’s bedroom and sleep beside him,” Antoinette said.

“But staff thought that was sweet.”

She said her parents successfully fought to keep Martin as an outpatient, but as he got older his care needs became more complex and he was admitted on a full-time basis at the age of 16, instantly prompting rapid weight loss.

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“He was a healthy weight in August, about 7st 5lb, but by Christmas he dropped to under 5st,” his sister recalled as she referred to photographic evidence.

“We were told Martin was at the stage where he needed peg-fed. The physical deterioration took four months.”

The inquiry heard how he was moved around several different wards from 2002 to 2015 and subjected to unacceptable standards of care — but his parents were reluctant to raise issues in case it affected their son’s treatment.

“My parents went in and saw Martin being pinned to the ground by three carers,” Antoinette said.

“He was red in the face, fighting and sweating, trying to get up.

“Martin was only 5ft 2in and one of the three men was over 6ft.

“They also used splints on him, which ran from his elbows to his wrists. They were never used on him at home.

“Martin takes time — the splints allowed people to put them on and just leave him.”

The first witness to describe the impact of the abuse on relatives of patients said her parents’ fear was “natural” and turned out to be justified.

Antoinette said visiting access was restricted after her mum and dad did begin flagging concerns.

“My parents were told there was no longer an open-door policy. There was no doubt it was explicitly linked,” she said.

The situation worsened in May and June of 2014 when her parents received a phone call to say there had been an incident involving Martin and that a number of staff had been suspended.

“My parents were told that Martin had been assaulted.”

Antoinette said her family had to wait until the subsequent court case against the staff member, known as H1, to find out any further details.

“He was in the shower room and H1 pushed him against the wall and he hit his head off the tiled wall. He was also verbally abused.

“My parents and I were shocked that H1 was allowed to return to work while awaiting trial; we had also been told by a PSNI liaison officer that H1 had assaulted another patient on the same day.”

However, the inquiry was told that H1 was eventually acquitted of common assault and ill treatment under the mental health order because a key witness changed their statement.

Another incident involved a staff member, known as H2, who accepted a police caution for throwing a bottle of water over Martin’s head and making fun of him while a co-worker laughed.

“H2 was put back on the ward and the senior manager made a note that they were not to work with Martin.”

Other alleged assaults involved a carer “violently shoving” Martin into his wheelchair.

Antoinette revealed how her family made serious complaints about “systemic abuse” to the hospital directly and to politicians at Stormont, including former health minister Jim Wells, in 2015.

“We complained to the PSNI, to senior staff and to the RQIA [Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority].

“It was chilling that people knew but just accepted what was happening... It was so bad that staff were reporting one another.

“We pushed to get CCTV in, but we were refused due to privacy issues.

Antoinette recalled being told by staff that “people lose their tempers” and that “everyone knows CCTV doesn’t work”.

Further incidents described to the inquiry included Martin accidentally being given a double dose of his medication.

“It was described as a near miss, which I took to mean that they could have killed him,” Antoinette said.

On another occasion, no one was able to account for a large gash on Martin’s head — despite the fact he required 24/7 monitoring.

Martin’s sister also complained about substandard living conditions after her brother was moved to accommodation which had a hole in the wall and a broken window.

“There was a gale blowing through,” Antoinette recalled. “We found him almost hypothermic.”

She confirmed it was eventually fixed, but only because her parents arranged for workmen to carry out the repairs.

The inquiry heard how Martin, who was doubly incontinent and had the mental age of a one-year-old, regularly had his soiled laundry “dumped” on top of his clean clothes.

The witness said that when complaints were acknowledged, they were met with phrases such as, “We acknowledge that the level of care was not up to standard.”

“That’s like a Tripadvisor review,” Antoinette said.

She described the impact the abuse had on Martin, whom she described as “the centre” of her family, but also on her parents.

“He was on our minds all day,” she recalled.

“Martin loved music and loved to dance. He was a Daniel O’Donnell fan and had a great rapport with children. He was always smiling.

“But he became depressed and was prescribed antidepressants. He stopped communicating and didn’t want to engage with other patients.

“We raised the impact with a consultant psychiatrist but [it was] just brushed off, saying, ‘Come on now.’

Antoinette broke down and wept as she described how Martin started smiling again within three months of being resettled in shared accommodation.

“They stole his voice and his joy,” she said.

The witness also warned that the structures enabling abuse are still in place throughout the health service.

“These agency workers are being used all over the health service. Just not working in Muckamore isn’t going to [stop this].”

“The only reason the Trust and the Department of Health is here today is because of the CCTV footage.

“They can no longer gaslight us. They have to hold their hands up.”

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