Father of autistic girl treated like an animal and fed through a hatch sues NHS for torture and degradation

Published by The Mail on Sunday (16th December, 2018)

The father of a teenage girl with autism locked for months in solitary confinement and fed through a hatch like a wild animal is suing the NHS for breach of human rights laws on torture and inhumanity.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission is backing the landmark case after the teenager’s horrific plight was highlighted by a Mail on Sunday investigation into the abuse of people with learning disabilities.

Beth, 17, is among hundreds of children and young adults with autism and learning disabilities taken from their families and held in tiny cells, forcibly injected with powerful drugs and violently restrained in secretive secure psychiatric units at a cost of up to £730,000 a year per patient.

‘It is very distressing that a parent has to contemplate the drastic action of taking the people responsible for his child’s care to court,’ said Jeremy, Beth’s father, who has already thwarted an attempted legal challenge from Walsall, his local authority, to gag him from speaking in public about his daughter’s case.

‘The NHS is designed to treat and help people in the greatest need so why am I having to sue them for inhumane and degrading treatment? You do not expect to see such things in this country and this century.’

Last week he joined Julie Newcombe, another parent, and three people with autism and learning disabilities, giving evidence on detention to the Joint Committee on Human Rights. MPs wiped tears away as they listened to their harrowing stories.

In another development, The Mail on Sunday has learned that the Children’s Commissioner plans to use statutory powers to make surprise visits to secure units after hearing from families about misuse of court-imposed gagging orders and children trapped in ‘intolerable conditions’.

Meanwhile, Labour has written to Health Secretary Matt Hancock demanding he disclose the full cost to taxpayers of sending people with autism and learning disabilities into supposedly short-stay assessment and treatment units (ATUs).

This newspaper revealed how one man with autism has been incarcerated for 18 years, costing the NHS more than £10 million. And we also exposed how giant US healthcare firms, hedge funds and fat-cat charity chiefs have been accused of ‘profiting from misery’ by families.

Lawyers for Beth’s family have sent letters warning of legal action to NHS England, Walsall Council, the local health commissioning body and St Andrew’s, the controversial charity holding the teenager in its new 90-bed secure unit.

The case – also backed by the charity Mencap – is based on Article 3 of the Human Rights Act, which guarantees freedom from torture, inhumane and degrading treatment, along with Article 8 protecting freedom and family life. ‘This is one of the biggest domestic human rights abuses of our time,’ said Kari Gerstheimer, Mencap’s director of advice and information. ‘It is like something out of Victorian times.’

At the Joint Committee at Westminster, Jeremy described how he had to kneel to speak to his daughter through a small hatch in her padded cell. He was unable to hug his child and said she was pumped full of unnecessary medication. She was watched at all times, even on the toilet.

It is understood Beth was moved into a new two-room cell nine days ago following national outcry over her treatment, yet – incredibly – staff cut another feeding hatch into the door beforehand.

Julie Newcombe told MPs her son Jamie was placed in an ATU for what she thought would be a few weeks but was held for a ‘horrific’ 19 months of ‘punitive’ treatment. During this time, Julie was repeatedly accused of lying by staff.

Jamie suffered a broken arm in one restraint that went undetected for 24 hours and Julie said he still suffered severe post-traumatic stress three years later.

Baroness Lawrence, a committee member, said she could ‘relate’ to their lonely fight as parents after her family’s struggle to gain justice following the infamous murder of her son Stephen. ‘In fighting the system, the system is stacked against you,’ she said.

Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, is also probing the issue. ‘I place a big emphasis on shining a light on children hidden from view and none are more so than those in ATU’s,’ she told The Mail on Sunday.

She has had held meetings with parents to hear their stories. ‘They described how it felt as if time had stood still as they fought for years with councils and institutions to get their children back,’ she said.

The Commissioner plans to ‘demand access for a series of urgent visits’ to ATUs to talk directly to youngsters with autism and learning disabilities sectioned in psychiatric units.

Barbara Keeley, Shadow Care Minister, said she has been told it could save up to £330,000 a year for each person to be moved into more effective community care. She added: ‘The continued detention of people with learning disabilities is not only morally and clinically unjustifiable, in the vast majority of these cases it is also unnecessarily expensive.’

Ministers have failed to meet pledges to empty ATUs of people with learning disabilities. They were made after an abuse scandal in 2011, at the now-closed Winterbourne View home in Gloucestershire. Last week a nurse who had worked at the unit was struck off for punching a patient so hard in the face that he lost teeth.

That assault took place in 2009 and Mark Brown, co-founder of Rightful Lives, a group set up by parents, said the time taken to resolve this case was ‘another stark demonstration of the low value put on lives of people with learning disabilities in this country.’

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