Whistle-blower withdraws offer to help police reopen probe into autistic abuse scandal

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A whistle-blower who has vital evidence of serious abuse at a care home for autistic adults has retracted her offer to talk to police about what she witnessed, which could have led to them reopening their failed investigation.

Disability News Service (DNS) found out this week that Avon and Somerset police had failed to interview her, even though her whistleblowing played a key part in helping to expose the abuse scandal at Mendip House, which was run by the National Autistic Society (NAS).

The whistle-blower, Hannah*, had talked in depth to DNS this week about what she witnessed at Mendip House in Brent Knoll, Somerset, and revealed that she had never been interviewed by Avon and Somerset police.

Police have failed to bring any charges against those responsible for the abusive regime.

And they confirmed this week that Hannah was never interviewed.

A police spokesperson said: “We were never made aware of the person you have named as your source, which is why she was not interviewed as part of our investigation.”

Hannah had made it clear earlier this week that she wanted to give a statement to police, in the hope that the force would reopen its investigation, and secure justice through the courts for the autistic people abused at Mendip House.

But Hannah has now appalled campaigners by retracting her offer to give a police statement, because she says she fears that speaking out could put her own job in the care industry at risk.

DNS understands that the police cannot compel Hannah to provide a statement about what she saw at Mendip House.

She had left her contact details with the Care Quality Commission (CQC) in the spring of 2016 when she helped expose the abusive regime at Mendip House, where she worked for about eight months in 2015 and 2016.

CQC passed her evidence to Somerset County Council in a safeguarding referral, but it is still not clear why no effort was made by the council or the police to interview her, and which of the two bodies was to blame for that failure.

Avon and Somerset police were this week ready to interview Hannah and take a statement about what she witnessed at Mendip House, after being approached by DNS.

But yesterday, after DNS asked her permission to pass her phone number to the police press office, she sent a text message saying that she had “decided due to the nature of my job now I would rather not give evidence or have my details in the paper but wish you all the best”.

She has not responded to further messages by phone or email.

Hannah spoke to a manager and to CQC in April 2016.

The home was closed by NAS several months later, partly as a result of her speaking to CQC.

But no-one was ever arrested or charged over the abuse, although five members of staff were sacked by the charity.

Avon and Somerset police has previously insisted that there was insufficient evidence to bring criminal charges against the former care workers responsible for the alleged abuse at the NAS home.

It has admitted taking statements from just 12 members of staff, but this appears to have been partly linked to threats made to fellow staff members, leaving them unwilling to co-operate with the police, although this was not mentioned by Hannah as a reason for now refusing to be interviewed.

The home had 26 members of staff as well as other zero hours workers, while scores of people were employed at six other homes on the Somerset Court campus, all run by NAS.

Avon and Somerset police insisted to DNS last month that “all those relevant to the offences in question were spoken to and those who were willing to talk to the police who had worked with the suspects”.

It also said last month that to interview “all former and current staff would’ve been a disproportionate use of police resources”.

It initially claimed its investigation took nine months, but later admitted it had lasted only five months.

CQC has confirmed that Hannah phoned its contact centre on 4 April 2016 and provided evidence, asking to remain anonymous, although she left her contact details. CQC made a “safeguarding referral” to Somerset County Council based on her information.

An anonymous whistle-blower, who CQC believes was Hannah, called the watchdog again on 9 May 2016 and provided further information, which led to a second safeguarding alert to the council.

A CQC spokesperson told DNS yesterday (Thursday): “If the local authority wished to have the contact details of the whistle-blower, CQC would have shared that information.

“Safeguarding authorities will involve the police when necessary and if the police asked us for that information, we would pass it on in the same way as to local authorities.”

But no attempt was made by the police or the council to secure Hannah’s contact details so they could interview her.

Despite CQC’s willingness to pass on her contact details, the council claims the information was provided “anonymously” and so it was not able to make “direct contact” with Hannah, while Avon and Somerset police said it was “never made aware of the person you have named as your source”.

The council and police failed to contact Hannah even though she appears to be one of the whistle-blowers referred to in the safeguarding adults review (SAR) report [PDF] published in January 2018 by the Somerset Safeguarding Adults Board, which followed an inquiry set up by the county council into the allegations.

The SAR report says: “The closure of Mendip House may be traced to May 2016 when incidents were revealed to Somerset’s Safeguarding personnel by NAS whistle blowers, one of which was reported via the Care Quality Commission.”

Some of Hannah’s evidence passed to DNS earlier this week appeared to be even more serious than the details of abuse included in the SAR report.

She appears to have evidence of serious and criminal ill-treatment and neglect under the Mental Health Act or Mental Capacity Act.

She told DNS how she saw:

  • A heavily-built male staff member riding a male resident like a horse in order to “humiliate” him
  • A male staff member shouting abuse at a male resident after he left a toilet door open
  • A male staff member forcing a male resident to eat raw onion [the SAR report says a resident was punished for refusing to eat an onion]
  • A female staff member refusing to give a male resident drinks in case he wet himself
  • The same resident often having to lie in a wet bed for more than half an hour because staff refused to change him
  • Male staff members locking a female resident in her car on several occasions, and walking back to Mendip House – where they could not see her – and only checking on her at intervals
  • A male and female staff member engaged in overt sexual activity [described by Hannah as “dry-humping”]while a male resident was sitting at a table in the same room
  • A female staff member in charge of a shift refusing to call an ambulance after a male resident repeatedly banged his head against the wall after being shouted at
  • Male members of staff throwing food at a male resident on several occasions
  • Staff using residents’ money to buy food for staff from a takeaway in nearby Weston-super-Mare, using an NAS vehicle. In contrast to what was said in the SAR report, residents did not accompany staff on these trips, according to Hannah

Hannah originally said she was “horrified” that no-one had been arrested over the abuse.

She said: “I am still angry about it. It was massively covered up from the top down.”

Emma Dalmayne, chief executive of the autistic-led organisation Autistic Inclusive Meets, who organised a protest about the scandal outside NAS headquarters in London last month (pictured), said: “It is extremely disappointing that a person who works in the care sector has decided to withdraw any support for a new investigation.

“It is a massive setback. If you see abuse, any decent person would want justice.

“Why wouldn’t this person want to bring these people to justice? Is her job more important?”

Dalmayne had previously said that the police failure to interview Hannah showed “another layer of the complete failure of all services involved to protect the safety and rights of highly vulnerable autistic people has been revealed.

“This is appalling. Safeguarding all but disregarded and a basic common decency and respect for human life completely absent.

“The message of all involved, the residents, their families… to us the autistic community is clear. They and we do not matter.”

A relative of one of the residents – before Hannah withdrew her co-operation – told DNS that the abuse seemed to have been “swept under the carpet”.

She said: “I just don’t know why the police didn’t investigate more fully. Why do they seem to have been so lacklustre?

“From the sounds of it, they didn’t do enough. They could have interviewed more [people who worked at Mendip House].

“I am just so bewildered, so confused. It just seems like the police gave up too soon. I have no idea why.”

Mendip House was one of seven homes run by NAS, as part of the Somerset Court campus.

The other six homes are still open, and Hannah had previously said she believed there needed to be a new inquiry into all the Somerset Court homes, and frequent and regular inspections.

She said: “I would be in there every week for weeks. I would be breathing down their necks ensuring the same thing didn’t happen.”

She also said she believed the abusive regime at Mendip House dated back much further than the two-year period between 2014 and 2016 covered in the SAR report.

She said: “The staff who had been there years told me that they reported and reported and reported and nothing had been done.”

A CQC spokesperson said: “Straight after the last Mendip House inspection we did do a fully comprehensive inspection of all Somerset Court homes. 

“However, if anyone did have information of concern, we would encourage them to share this with us so we can investigate.”

A Somerset County Council spokesperson has been unable to explain why the information it received from CQC about Hannah’s evidence did not lead to her being interviewed by police.

But she said in a statement: “Somerset County Council held meetings with the police, NAS and CQC where information received from anonymous whistle-blowers was passed on to the police as part of their investigation.

“As mentioned previously, all whistle-blower information we received was given to us anonymously and it’s not our policy to ask for contact details in these cases to protect the identity of whistle-blowers.

“Therefore, we wouldn’t have been able to individually identify [Hannah].

“We received information from a number of anonymous whistle-blowers, which were all consistent with the points raised by [Hannah] and subsequently part of the investigation.

“If [Hannah] feels her anonymous evidence wasn’t taken into account in 2016, she is welcome to get in touch with Somerset County Council or the police to formally put her concerns on record.”

It is currently unclear why no effort was made to ask Hannah to give a statement to police in 2016 and 2017.

CQC decided last month not to prosecute NAS, and instead fined it just £4,000 for financial abuse by staff, despite the regime of “taunting, mistreatment and humiliation of residents”.

An NAS spokesperson said: “We cooperated fully with the lengthy police investigation. We asked to be kept updated with developments and were informed when they eventually closed the investigation.

“However, from what we understand, the police would not be able to share any details about who they interviewed with us or any other agency or organisation that wasn’t directly involved in the investigation.

“And they did not share the details of whether this person was interviewed or not.”

He added: “We have reported and investigated all allegations that have been raised with us.

“In line with our responsibilities, we will of course fully investigate any other concerns that are raised with us. Or people can of course go straight to the CQC with any concerns.”

*Not her real name

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