Solar Centre scandal: Families back DNS call for inquiry


theweeksubFamilies of disabled people abused at a day centre have joined Disability News Service (DNS) in calling for an independent inquiry into why it took six years to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Susan Murphy, aged 44, and James Hinds, aged 59, were found guilty last Friday (17 May) of a total of 25 charges of ill-treating people with learning difficulties, physical impairments and high support needs at the Solar Centre in Doncaster.

A jury had heard how the service-users suffered more than two years of abuse from Hinds and Murphy, who intimidated other staff into silence.

Service-users were slapped and hit, while Hinds dragged one man across the floor and stabbed another of the male service-users repeatedly with a needle on the arm and hand because he wouldn’t sit down, while Murphy locked a female service-user in a cupboard.

Sarah Wright, prosecuting, had told the jury how one of the service-users, Maxine Hughes, had scars caused by suffering severe burns as a child.

Wright told the court: “Jim Hinds and Susan Murphy would hit Maxine. Jim Hinds used to laugh and say the marks could not be seen because of the scarring to her face.”

The abuse was finally halted in March 2007 when a member of staff reported her concerns to Rotherham Doncaster and South Humber Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust (RDaSH), which runs the day centre.

Following the verdicts, Adrian and Kathy Milnes, Sandra Mountain, Valerie and Sydney Kirsopp, Wendy Magill and Andrew Hopkinson – who all have relatives who used the Solar Centre – joined DNS in calling for a small-scale independent inquiry into the many failures of the public bodies.

They are demanding answers to 10 key questions, including why the police and Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) twice failed to produce enough evidence to charge anyone over the Solar Centre abuse.

They are also questioning why, as late as August 2011, South Yorkshire police was claiming that it could not use offences under the Mental Health Act to prosecute the abusers, because the legislation was not in place at the time the offences happened. The legislation eventually used to prosecute the abusers was the Mental Health Act 1983.

They are also asking why the CPS failed to call any expert witnesses during the trial to explain to the jury how care workers should treat people with learning difficulties and high support needs.

In September 2011, the CPS had decided – for the second time – not to bring any charges over the alleged abuse.

DNS then approached the Liberal Democrat MP Paul Burstow, who at the time was care services minister, and passed on similar concerns to the director of public prosecutions, Keir Starmer, head of the CPS.

The CPS agreed to look again at the case, and two weeks later launched a full review of its failure to prosecute any of the alleged abusers. In August 2012, it announced that four former members of Solar Centre staff would be charged.

Adrian Milnes, step-father of Richie Rowe, one of the service-users abused by Hinds at the Solar Centre, said: “Richie is a shadow in society, someone with no voice and very little presence. This has been reflected in the justice he has received, a shadow of what he should be entitled to.

“Our experience is that the absolute minimum is done, with mistakes and apologies in abundance along the way, and a notable lack of explanation or accountability. Ignorance of the law is not a defence, except when it is used as a defence by the police and CPS.”

He added: “All Richie has ever asked is that the people involved in his care and protection act in his best interests and do their job. But the trust, the police and the CPS all failed him totally.

“Even now the challenging behaviour he sometimes presents is ascribed to his impairment rather than the abuse he has lived through. How quickly we try to forget the truth and blame someone with no voice.”

John Pring, editor of DNS and author of Longcare Survivors: The Biography of a Care Scandal, which investigates a scandal similar to the Solar Centre, but which was uncovered in 1994, said: “Nearly 20 years after the Longcare scandal was finally exposed, the criminal justice system seems to be guilty of just the same failures.

“People with learning difficulties have no access to justice, particularly if they are abused in institutional settings. When will criminal justice agencies start learning the lessons of previous abuse scandals?

“There must be an inquiry into how it is possible for the criminal justice system to fail so badly.

“The failings were so extreme, and so hard to understand, that the only possible explanation is institutional disablism.

“The Solar Centre service-users did not get equal treatment. They were abused by the people paid to care for them, and then they were discriminated against by the people paid to secure their access to justice.”

South Yorkshire police refused to answer detailed questions from DNS after the case, although detective chief inspector Natalie Shaw claimed officers had “worked tirelessly” to bring the case to court, and said the offences had been “investigated professionally”.

She added: “I am satisfied after review of South Yorkshire Police’s policy and procedure that since 2007, the way in which South Yorkshire Police record and investigate allegations of abuse against vulnerable adults has been amended, and the difficulties encountered in the initial stages of this investigation will not be repeated.”

She refused to comment further or answer any questions about the force’s failures.

A CPS spokesman said: “We acknowledge that this conviction has taken some time to secure and decisions were not handled as well as they could have been in the past.

“We should have made greater efforts to build a case with police and use disability hate crime legislation that could be used to prosecute the defendants.”

But he declined to explain why it had taken so long for the case to come to trial, although he added: “We acknowledge the contribution that Disability News Service has made in bringing this case to justice.”

Murphy was found guilty of 15 out of 20 charges of ill-treatment, while Hinds was found guilty of 10 out of 19 charges. They will be sentenced on 14 June.

Their former colleagues, Julie Burge and Michael Barnard, were acquitted of all charges.

23 May 2013