At 14, Jade was sent to hospital – and 13 years later they still won’t let her out
Published by The Mail on Sunday (16th December, 2018)
Jade Hutchings was a child who adored acting and animals, friends and family. But she suffered from anxiety and sometimes struggled to fit in socially, so her loving family rallied round with trips to the seaside, community events and outings to historic attractions.
After she hit adolescence, she became a target for bullying by a group of boys at her school in Birmingham. The attacks sent the teenager spiralling into depression and made her feel suicidal, so her parents sought medical help.
At 14 she ended up in a psychiatric hospital, where she was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome – a form of autism often missed in young women that can leave them with severe emotional and social difficulties.
Her parents were told she would be away six months at most. But 13 years later, Jade is still locked away – like the many others with autism and learning disabilities as reported by this newspaper.
‘It’s like a bereavement except our daughter is not dead,’ Linda, her distraught mother, told me.
Jade has been held in lonely seclusion, forced to wear just a rubber gown and pumped full of powerful drugs. She has piled on weight and her state of mind is deteriorating, trapped amid the tumult and chaos of a secure psychiatric unit, say her family.
She was allowed to leave one unit briefly when she travelled to Abu Dhabi and Paris on foreign holidays, which she calls her last time of freedom.
She has self-harmed while locked up but never attacked anyone else – yet is seen to be such a risk she has not been allowed outside beyond a tiny courtyard for four years. She was not permitted to visit her beloved grandfather as he lay dying from cancer, nor even allowed out for a short walk in the park with her family and their dog.
When her parents visit her at the psychiatric unit in Newark, Nottinghamshire, after travelling almost two hours to see and talk with their distressed daughter, they must sit crammed in a small room with two staff present.
Linda, 54, a support worker for people with acquired brain injuries, said: ‘When she went in at first we were desperate, but they have taken away her childhood. She went in as a teenager and now she is 27 years old. Where is the humanity in what they are doing to her?
‘It is so painful seeing her friends go to university and settle down with partners. One has a young daughter. Jade has missed all these things, which she desperately wants and I am so scared for her future.’
Her story is a tragedy. Yet she is just one among hundreds of teenagers and young adults with autism and learning disabilities torn from their families and forced into secure mental health units that make massive profits for their distant owners.
The Mail on Sunday has revealed that, despite repeated Government pledges to reduce the numbers of such people in secure units, private firms are opening up new centres and fast expanding their share of a lucrative health sector.
Jade’s current home is Farndon, a secure unit owned by Elysium with beds for up to 48 women. Latest accounts show that last year Elysium Healthcare (Farndon) earned revenues from the NHS of £7 million, giving them operating profits of £1.6 million.
Elysium is backed by BC Partners, a private equity group, through a firm in low-tax Luxembourg. Although only launched in December 2016, it operates already at 55 English locations and last year handed £361,774 to one of its directors. The most recent annual report for Elysium Healthcare (Farndon) said the firm would ‘focus on delivering growth’ through expansion and ‘leveraging the investment’ to ‘attract new patients’.
It pays some support staff at Farndon less than £16,000 a year.
Little wonder that campaigners fear patients are seen as cash cows to be milked by a flawed system at the expense of taxpayers. Linda and her husband Chris believe the cost of their daughter’s care is £416,000 a year. Elysium declined to comment.
Linda said they had ‘lovely memories’ of their daughter’s childhood before becoming engulfed in a nightmare 14 years ago. She recalled: ‘We thought the professionals knew what they were doing and she would soon be out.’
After a suicide bid at school, Jade was taken to a psychiatric unit for patients with eating disorders. She started to mimic them in an attempt to fit in – a common trait for females with Asperger’s – and shed so much weight she had to be force-fed through a tube.
The family was told Jade needed to be sectioned and sent to St Andrew’s, a major psychiatric centre in Northampton. ‘Social services said if we did not agree they would take us to court and have us legally removed as nearest relatives,’ said Linda. ‘They were threatening us. It was terrifying, like being beaten with a stick.’
Jade received decent treatment at St Andrew’s, where she could enjoy the grounds, for three years. Then she was moved to a specialist autism unit near Bath that allowed her out for shopping jaunts with her sisters and those family holidays abroad.
But then she was sent to another secure unit outside Cambridgeshire where, her parents said, she was locked for weeks in a secluded attic room with just a television and rubber-sheeted bed – and clad in a rubberised gown.
‘They didn’t even give her a pillow,’ said her mother. ‘She was watched all the time, even doing the most personal things.
‘She was also restrained physically, which was very traumatic for a girl who had been bullied.’ Next she was shifted to a privately run unit in Wales, where a mental health tribunal asked Birmingham City Council, her home funding authority, to look into a community-based care package.
Instead, two years ago, she was sent to Farndon.
One reason for the failure of Transforming Care – an initiative launched after a 2011 abuse scandal at Winterbourne View in Gloucestershire to get people with autism and learning disabilities out of such places – is that cash-strapped local authorities prefer to see the NHS paying for psychiatric units rather than fund care packages in the community. Yet community support is often more effective for patients and cheaper for taxpayers.
Jade is being held because of ‘self-harming tendencies’ in the past but has never shown any signs of being a danger to herself when she is with her family.
One psychiatrist told the family that private health providers often say anything to keep their patients locked up. ‘The end justifies the means,’ said Linda.
Birmingham Council said it would not discuss individual cases. ‘There are always safeguarding measures in place when somebody’s liberty is limited due to illness or disability,’ said a spokesman.
When Jade’s younger sister Rosie had leukaemia eight years ago, Jade provided bone marrow for a successful transplant. ‘I’ll defend the NHS with my last breath,’ Linda said. ‘But this model of care simply does not work.’
She’s convinced her daughter would be better off back with her family and friends in Birmingham, backed by a care package. ‘Surely after 13 years they could try something else? She has definitely become worse, which is so worrying to see over all these years.
‘She is medicated, really tired, and sleeps a lot. She put on loads of weight due to powerful anti- psychotic medicines and lack of exercise, then they say she does not have the capacity to go for a walk with the dog. She sleeps and watches TV.’
Her family are desperate to free Jade. ‘We are suffering agonies,’ said Linda. ‘I’m heartbroken. She is the first thing I think about in the morning and last thing I think about at night. When will this torment end?’