Glynn Brown’s son Aaron is 25, but has the intellectual capability of a toddler.
He loves watching The Lion King and Toy Story, and being driven by his father in the car. His parents meet his needs that he cannot, from brushing his teeth, to toileting help, and washing and feeding him.
He is happy and settled now in shared care, but is physically unable to speak for himself to articulate the horror he suffered while in Muckamore Abbey — an institution at the centre of a public inquiry which opened last week, chaired by Tom Kark QC.
As his father explained to me: “When we were pushing him back into Muckamore in his wheelchair, he used to put his feet out straight, to try and stop us. Once, when the alarm went off, he went straight to his bed. It was only later I found out why.” Aaron was frightened.
In 2017, Glynn was telephoned by a senior professional to say his son had been assaulted. Frustrated, and seeking answers, he pushed for the PSNI to become involved. That led to revelations that — unknown to Muckamore staff — CCTV had captured this and similar incidents involving other patients.
Glynn spoke publicly, and became involved in a relatives group, Action for Muckamore. “Aaron has a simple life, and the mind of a child. That’s the sort of people who were being abused in Muckamore,” Glynn said. “I wanted something done about it, so that it never, ever happens again.”
The PSNI investigation, separate from the public inquiry, has so far reviewed 300,000 hours of CCTV footage and arrested 38 people. Over 80 staff have been suspended.
Glynn believes that as the inquiry progresses people will be appalled at the scale of allegations: “This is the largest scandal regarding adult safeguarding since the NHS was founded,” he said.
In 2017, prior to the CCTV discovery, Catherine, whose daughter also resided in Muckamore, contacted me. She was distressed because she had been repeatedly raising concerns with agencies, and felt she wasn’t being listened to.
Her daughter, who has intellectual challenges, was placed in seclusion, and told her mother it was like “being in jail”.
Catherine asked to see the room. “I sat in the chair, and it was then I understood why she was afraid,” she told me.
A 2019 Belfast Trust report found the “unmonitored use of seclusion” was “anti-therapeutic”. Catherine wants photos of the original seclusion room her daughter was placed in to be provided to the inquiry.
It is heartbreaking to listen to her articulate her feelings of guilt.
“It is with deep, deep regret that I ever entrusted my daughter into the care of Muckamore. It did her a lot of damage, she came out worse than what she went in, and I would love to be able to undo the harm that has been done,” she said.
I gently remind her that the people responsible for her daughter’s care are those she trusted to look after her. She wants the inquiry to find the truth.
“I have to be my daughter’s voice, she can’t represent herself, and this is why this is so horrific. To think that things were happening to people over a period of time…”
She breaks off, clearly upset, before adding: “How did the system fail so badly, there are a lot of agencies involved in patient care to keep them safe. Surely there must have been red flags?”
In February 2019 the Regulation Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA) undertook unannounced visits to Muckamore. They “observed a reactive and crisis approach to management”, adding in their report: “Governance arrangements were found to be insufficiently developed to be capable of providing assurance to BHSCT [Belfast Health and Social Care Trust] that services in MAH are safe and well led”.
Such a sentence would be disturbing at any time, but this inspection took place after allegations of mistreatment had been made public, and after the suspension of some members of staff. It is staggering that problems remained at this juncture.
In the same report it was noted that “nursing staff throughout the wards were responsive to patient requests and managed them in a caring manner”, but staff shortages, seclusion, and a difficulty with being able to discharge patients, were also raised.
By July 2021 another inspection noted all recommendations but one were fully met. Last week, an RQIA representative told the inquiry they will engage in an “effective, candid and open manner”.
On Wednesday, the Department of Health apologised to families for the “appalling behaviours” identified at the residential facility.
As a child, I visited a patient in Muckamore. On one occasion, a young man sat in a corridor, rocking back and forward, wearing a padded helmet, repeatedly banging his head off the wall.
His hands were clapped to his ears, thumbs pulling at the inside of his cheeks. All around him was noise — other patients shuffling, staff busying about. There was a smell, not unlike what you would get on a geriatric ward where disinfectant rarely masks bodily functions.
I was no stranger to adult institutions. My great-aunt, blind and oxygen deprived at birth, spent her adult life in one in Dublin. I enjoyed visits to see her. In contrast, through young eyes, Muckamore was a scary place.
We owe a debt of gratitude to the families affected for not giving up, and for acting as advocates for those whose dreadful memories were locked in their minds, unable to articulate the damaging incidents forced upon them.
They should also be commended for achieving a public inquiry, which will finally fully illuminate events at Muckamore.
It is a crying shame it took the eventual discovery of CCTV before meaningful action was taken. Appalling doesn’t begin to cover it. Accountability must follow.