Scandal of autistic youngsters locked in solitary confinement
Published by The Mail on Sunday (28th October, 2018)
Hundreds of people with autism and learning disabilities are being locked up in appalling conditions, routinely abused and stuffed into tiny, secluded padded cells, a Mail on Sunday investigation has found.
Devastated families are having children and young adults taken from them against their wishes and locked away – in one case for an astonishing 18 years.
Our shocking investigation found that confused teenagers are being fed through hatches in seclusion, forcibly injected with powerful drug cocktails to sedate them, and violently restrained by up to six adults at a time behind the locked doors of secretive units.
The scandal is due to broken political promises by the Government, bickering local officials, woeful care failures and profit-hungry private operators taking over a lucrative National Health Service sector. We can reveal:
- Ministers have failed to meet pledges made after the 2011 Winterbourne View care abuse scandal to empty assessment and treatment units (ATUs) of people with learning disabilities by returning them to families and communities;
- Latest figures show that 2,375 people with learning disabilities are still stuck in these supposedly short-stay units;
- One man has been held an astonishing 18 years. His elderly parents say the experience has been a nightmare and that their son is very depressed, crying when their weekly visits end;
- The number of children in ATUs doubled over the past three years – yet powerless parents are routinely gagged by courts and some have been threatened with having homes seized if they speak out;
- Families complain of regular abuse, bullying, cruelty, over-use of physical restraint, poorly-trained staff and use of powerful drug ‘coshes’ to sedate people;
- The NHS spends up to £13,000 a week per person kept in ATUs – but experts say most should not be in secure hospitals and that supported outside living would be better and cheaper;
- US hedge funds have muscled in on a sector worth almost half a billion pounds annually – while one charity operator gave its departed chief executive a pay package worth almost £1 million over two years.
One distraught father, gagged by court order from public discussion of his son’s case, said: ‘I only wanted respite help for three days, and that was three years ago. Now my son is having drugs forced down his throat. It makes me want to cry 24 hours a day and punch walls.’
Norman Lamb, the Liberal Democrat MP and former Care Minister in the Coalition, said there had been a total failure of the system, adding: ‘This is inhumane, immoral and breaching people’s human rights.’
Lamb intervened in one case of a 15-year-old girl with complex autism sent to an ATU. ‘The more she became confused, the worse her behaviour,’ he said. ‘She ended up ripping off her clothes and running around naked.’
The girl was regularly restrained and shut in seclusion but Mr Lamb helped obtain her freedom. ‘She behaved like an animal because she was treated like one,’ he said. ‘But from the moment she left, she never needed to be restrained again.’
Another woman with autism held for more than three years in an ATU said she was even stripped of her clothes and watched by male and female staff. ‘I felt so degraded and violated,’ she said.
Isabelle Garnett, an autism campaigner whose teenage son suffered terribly when taken into an ATU for almost two years, said people with autism and learning disabilities were placed in mental health hospitals due to lack of appropriate services in local communities.
‘Once they are admitted to hospital, people with autism are set up to fail,’ she said. ‘Being ripped away from all that they know and all who love them causes yet more stress.
‘The inappropriate hospital environment, care and treatment increases anxiety and consequently there is more challenging behaviour. This is the most vicious of circles: the hospital becomes the cause of the child’s continued detention.’
Tory MP Charles Walker, who has campaigned on mental health issues, said: ‘This seems like a system designed to burn through lives and burn through money.’
Sent away for nine months…still locked up after 18 years
Tony Hickmott is an autistic man whose mother Pam said ‘never harmed anyone in the community’ when living at home in Brighton. He was sent away supposedly for nine months, but has now, shamefully, spent almost 18 years in ATUs.
‘We were happy to care for him but just needed a little respite help,’ said Pam, 74, a retired hospital supervisor. ‘Instead, they took him away.’
She and her husband Roy had to fight in court to remain his legal guardians. They say he has been stuck in lonely seclusion, abused, restrained and had his arm badly broken in three places.
Although Tony is now 41 years old, he has to ask staff even to turn on his television. Yet despite their advancing years, his parents visit him every week in, all weathers, a 240-mile round trip from Brighton to Canterbury.
‘Our beloved son has lived half his life in an institution which has been heartless and cold,’ said his mother. ‘His right to a decent quality of life was taken away from him and so was his family. This has destroyed our lives also. We are very bitter. Yet he has done nothing wrong.’
The suffering that ended in tragedy for Stephanie
Stephanie Bincliffe left school at 16 and lived alone with support from a carer, despite a difficult form of autism called Pathological Demand Avoidance. But two years later she was sectioned, locked in a private mental unit and put in solitary confinement, compounding her anxieties and alienation.
For two years, she had to use wet wipes and a bedpan since there was no bath, shower or toilet. She was 15st stone when shut away. After seven years, her weight had soared by more than ten stone and she died in 2013 from heart failure and sleep apnoea caused by obesity.