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  • 23 May 2019
  • 4 min read

Hospital staff filmed ‘torturing’ learning disability patients

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Police have launched an investigation into the treatment of patients at Whorlton Hall in County Durham.

Hospital staff have been secretly filmed “torturing” patients with learning disabilities and autism during an investigation experts described as “horrific”.

A BBC Panorama programme uncovered staff mocking, taunting, intimidating and repeatedly restraining patients at Whorlton Hall in County Durham.

Durham Constabulary has launched an investigation and the 17-bed hospital has been closed, with 16 staff suspended and patients transferred.

Cygnet, the company which runs the NHS-funded private facility, said it was “shocked and deeply saddened” and is working with police.

"They are the absolute antithesis of what care workers should be."

In undercover footage recorded by BBC reporter Olivia Davies, one staff member called a patient a “fat c***” and another described the hospital as “house of mongs”.

Another patient is told by her care worker her family are “f****** poison”. Panorama went undercover between December and February.

The Care Quality Commission (CQC) health watchdog has also apologised after it rated the hospital good following an inspection in 2017.

In one shocking scene, two male staff members single out a female patient who is afraid of men by telling her – in an effort to keep her quiet – her room will be inundated with men.

The 17-bed hospital has been closed (BBC/PA)

They call this pressing the “man button” and, within her earshot, also use extremely explicit sexual language.

On another occasion, a male care worker threatens to “deck her” if she tries to run at staff.

Professor of clinical psychology and disability Glynis Murphy told Panorama: “I think it is like psychological torture, because she is stuck there, she can’t get away. It is a secure unit. And they are deliberately taunting her and deliberately upsetting her.”

Ms Davies also witnessed several incidents of physical restraint, which should only be used to stop a patient harming themselves or others.

One recorded incident showed a patient was restrained for nearly 10 minutes by a staff member who offered out chewing gum to colleagues.

In another incident a staff member antagonises a patient by removing a poster from his wall, telling him: “Get in there, punch me and see what happens. I’ll put you through the floor.”

Cygnet said the safety and care of patients is of “paramount importance” (BBC/PA)

Prof Murphy said: “This lot definitely should not be working in care. They are the absolute antithesis of what care workers should be.”

Six care workers told the reporter they have deliberately hurt patients, including one who boasted about “clotheslining” a person.

Cygnet, which took control of the centre in January, said: “The safety and care of our patients and residents is of paramount importance and we have zero tolerance of unprofessional conduct towards them.

“Those implicated in this programme have betrayed not only some of society’s most vulnerable people but also the thousands of people at Cygnet who work daily with dedication and compassion to look after the people in their care.”

Dr Paul Lelliott, deputy chief inspector of hospitals and lead for mental health at the CQC, said the abuse was “sickening” and “urgent” action was taken.

“We are sorry that we did not identify the abusive practices at Whorlton Hall,” he said.

"The health and social care system is continuing to fail people with a learning disability." - Mencap

A previous inspection in March 2018 highlighted some staff were working 24-hour shifts and there was inappropriate training and supervision.

Panorama also exposed abuse at Winterbourne View Hospital in Bristol in 2011, prompting the Government to promise an end to abuse of patients.

Dan Scorer, head of policy and public affairs at the learning disability charity Mencap, said the new findings highlight a “domestic human rights scandal”.

He said: “The horrific scenes from this latest Panorama programme show that the health and social care system is continuing to fail people with a learning disability.”

Richard Kramer, chief executive of disability charity Sense, described the treatment of patients as a “cross the board failure”.

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