Autistic youngsters ARE wrongly locked in mental hospitals, say health chiefs

Published by The Mail on Sunday (6th October, 2019)

Health chiefs have admitted that young people with autism and learning disabilities are being placed in ‘inappropriate’ mental health hospitals that worsen their condition.

They also say parents are pushed aside from decisions on care when – because of a dearth of community facilities – autistic teenagers are consigned to ‘environments’ that ‘do not meet their needs’. 

The shocking disclosures come in a review by Teresa Fenech, director of nursing (specialised commissioning) at NHS England, ordered by Health Secretary Matt Hancock after revelations emerged of a teenage girl being fed through a hatch in seclusion.

The distressing case of Beth, 17, was highlighted as part of the MoS campaign exposing how people with autism and learning disabilities are being locked up, held in solitary confinement, violently restrained and pumped full of drugs to sedate them.

The draft review, leaked to this newspaper, proposes an end to abusive detention of children and teenagers with autism or learning difficulties in secure hospitals when they do not have mental health issues, along with stopping the routine use of seclusion that intensifies stress.

‘There is evidence that admission to inappropriate physical environments initiates a cycle of behaviour that challenges, resulting in increasingly restrictive practices including seclusion,’ it concludes.

Among key recommendations are the launch of a worldwide probe into better care models, mandatory assessment of human rights, and development of a ‘parental rights-based approach’ aided by ‘system navigators’ to guide patients and families.

‘It is great to hear there will be acknowledgement of problems in the system,’ said Jeremy, Beth’s father. ‘But now they must act to stop the suffering.’

He fought off an injunction from Walsall Council to stop him speaking in public about his daughter’s plight. Other families have been silenced by court-imposed gags.

Rightful Lives, a family campaign group, said it wanted to see an urgent overhaul of commissioning alongside ‘more and better’ community provision. ‘Those who continue to pay for poor services or who fail to carry out their statutory duties need to be held accountable,’ said a spokeswoman.

The MoS discovered private firms running units earn up to £730,000 a year per patient – yet autism is not a mental health condition – while community provision is often cheaper, closer to home and more effective.

Families have spoken of seeking help only to have their children locked up and turned into ‘zombies’ from being forcibly injected with powerful drugs. One man has been locked up for 18 years, ten of them in solitary confinement.

Our disturbing reports have sparked a series of official inquiries. ‘I am determined to do everything I can to make sure no more vulnerable people have to endure the same horrific experiences that Beth went through,’ said Mr Hancock last night.

Yet there have been repeated pledges to stop detaining people with autism and learning disabilities in assessment and treatment units since 2011, when hideous abuse was exposed at Winterbourne View care home in Gloucestershire.

‘I sat in endless meetings after Winterbourne View and they all said the same things they are saying again now,’ said Alicia Wood, a former health department adviser. ‘They need to show some teeth to stop this incarceration destroying lives.’

The most recent NHS data showed 245 children with autism or learning disabilities were locked up in August, more than double the number three years ago, along with 2,255 adults. There was also a record number of restraints used in one month.

Figures obtained by Norman Lamb, Liberal Democrat MP and former care Minister, have shown an alarming 57 per cent rise in the use of anti-psychotic drug prescriptions since 2007, including for patients with autism and learning disabilities.

‘These drugs are often used as a control mechanism, which is simply wrong,’ he said. ‘This is a sign something has gone badly wrong when all advice is to avoid using them if possible for people with autism and learning disabilities.’

An NHS spokesman said the review was still being finalised but it was taking action to support people living with a learning disability or autism.

‘Since 2015, the number of people in hospital has reduced by more than a fifth and a programme introduced to stop overmedication of people with a learning disability,’ the spokesman added.

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