The care watchdog is investigating possible safeguarding failures at an NHS trust after a documentary uncovered figures showing there were 24 alleged rapes and 18 alleged sexual offences in just three years at one of its mental health hospitals.
The Care Quality Commission (CQC) told Disability News Service (DNS) yesterday that it had suspended the trust’s ratings for wards for people with learning difficulties and autistic people while it carried out checks, following the documentary’s revelations.
The figures were secured by the team behind Locked Away: Our Autism Scandal, a film for Channel 4’s Dispatches, which revealed the poor and inappropriate treatment and abuse experienced by autistic people in mental health units.
None of the alleged rapes at Littlebrook Hospital in Dartford, Kent, led to a prosecution, with allegations of 12 rapes and 15 further sexual offences dropped because of “evidential difficulties” and investigations into 12 other alleged rapes and two sexual offences failing to identify a suspect.
The hospital is run by Kent and Medway NHS and Social Care Partnership Trust.
The only disciplinary action taken related to just one of the alleged sexual offences, and saw an agency nurse removed from duty by the trust and reported to the police and their employer.
A trust spokesperson said it did not recognise the Kent Police figures, that none of the reports resulted in criminal action, and that it was working with Kent Police to understand the data.
It was unable to say how many different patients made complaints of rape and sexual assault in the three-year period, for data protection reasons.
It had failed to comment on the CQC’s actions by noon today (Thursday).
But a CQC spokesperson told DNS yesterday: “Inspectors are reviewing information in relation to care at the hospital, to decide whether we need to take further action to ensure people are safe.
“Additionally, we have today (28 March) visited the secure inpatient services for people with learning disability and autism as part of a focused inspection to ensure people are being given the best care possible.”
CQC had responded after DNS pointed out that the watchdog had raised concerns about safeguarding and the high number of agency staff at Littlebrook in 2016, when it was rated as “requires improvement” for safeguarding.
There was also an unannounced inspection in June 2021 after concerns were passed to CQC “about the safety and quality of the services” – during that inspection, the trust was unable to show inspectors that the agency staff working on the day of the inspection had completed their inductions.
A CQC spokesperson said: “Safe staffing and staff induction form part of our key lines of enquiry and engagement with the trust. We will report on these as soon as we are able.”
CQC said its inspectors were now reviewing information about care at Littlebrook “to decide whether we need to take further action to ensure people are safe”.
It also visited the trust’s secure inpatient services for autistic people and people with learning difficulties as part of a “focused inspection” on Tuesday (28 March) to “ensure people are being given the best care possible”.
Dispatches was told how one young autistic woman had been kept in long-term segregation for her entire stay at Littlebrook, although not in a unit for autistic people or people with learning difficulties.
She was kept locked in a room with a mattress on the floor for 551 days.
Her mother told Dispatches that this was “effectively solitary confinement”.
But she said her daughter had also revealed that she had been taken to areas in the hospital where there were no cameras, where she was sexually assaulted and raped.
Her daughter, who also has an eating disorder, was later moved to a psychiatric hospital 320 miles from her home in a specialist unit in Northumberland, and “deteriorated in almost every possible way” while she was there.
She was then taken to a ward in a general hospital where she was refusing to eat and was being surgically fed through a tube.
The documentary was written, filmed and directed by Richard Butchins, a disabled writer, journalist and presenter, who also made The Truth About Disability Benefits, the award-winning Dispatches exposé of links between the Department for Work and Pensions and the deaths of benefit claimants.
Butchins, who talks in the film about being autistic and his fears about having to ask for mental health treatment himself, told DNS: “While it is gratifying to see action taken in response to my film, it should not take the spotlight of publicity to improve the care for disabled people in vulnerable situations, and it is concerning to see places deemed not to provide safe and caring environments left open to admissions.
“Often the source of any problem is seen as the fault of the patient – rather than one of the toxic dynamic of the care system.”
A Kent Police spokesperson said: “Between 1 January 2020 and 1 January 2023 a total of 24 rapes and 18 other sexual offences allegedly committed at Littlebrook Hospital, Dartford, were reported to Kent Police.
“Each have since concluded with the evidential test for prosecution not being met or no suspect being identified, with one resulting in further action being taken by another body or agency.”
Detective superintendent Mark Weller, of Kent Police’s protecting vulnerable people command, said: “Tackling rape and other sexual offences, including those committed against women and girls, is a top priority for Kent Police.
“Such offences are among the most serious we deal with and we carry out a full and thorough investigation into every incident reported to us based on the information available.
“We also work very closely with the Crown Prosecution Service to bring offenders before the courts when there is sufficient evidence to do so.
“Protecting vulnerable people, including those suffering through mental ill health, is of the utmost importance, and we record and investigate every incident reported to us to a consistently high standard.
“Victims’ welfare is at the heart of everything we do, and we take steps to support and safeguard them in partnership with independent sexual violence advisors and other support agencies, even when it is not possible to pursue a criminal prosecution.”
A CQC spokesperson said: “Sexual offences are a matter for the police in the first instance.
“However, we take reports of sexual offences seriously and review them all, and raise these issues directly with the trust.
“We do this alongside involvement from police and local authority safeguarding teams’ own investigations and monitor any actions and outcomes taken by the trust to ensure people are kept safe.
“We speak regularly with the trust to monitor the care it provides and to ensure they are taking the right steps to address any areas for improvement.
“Each and every person is entitled to safe, high-quality care and we remain fully committed to using all of the powers available to us to make sure action is taken against services that are not providing this.”
Kent and Medway NHS and Social Care Partnership Trust said new safeguarding policies and procedures were introduced following the 2016 CQC report, including more regular and strict supervision of staff, and new incident reporting systems, while it claimed that all staff, including agency staff, undertake mandatory safeguarding training.
It said that very few allegations made against its staff were substantiated and none of the reports made to the police had resulted in prosecutions.
The trust’s chief executive, Helen Greatorex, said: “We take the safety of our service users, their loved ones and our staff extremely seriously and do not tolerate any form of sexual harassment or misconduct.
“As a safety focused organisation we encourage the reporting of all incidents so that appropriate action can be taken.
“This can include involving the police, putting safeguarding arrangements in place to protect those involved and supporting service users and staff.
“Whilst none of the reports made to the police resulted in criminal action, we can confirm that between 2020-2023 we took immediate action against one individual, an agency nurse.
“We removed them from duty and reported them to both the police and their employer.
“The specialist national services for people with autism are not where we all want them to be.
“The purpose of in-patient mental health services is to care for people experiencing severe mental illnesses.
“Autistic people need specialised settings that cater to their needs which are often not met in acute psychiatric settings.
“We have stepped in to help individuals with autism when there is nowhere else for them to go and have been transparent and clear about our concerns in doing so.
“We remain committed to contributing to the work being done across our region and nationally to create much better options for autistic people who need a period of inpatient care.”