The family of an autistic man confined to an apartment and fed through a hatch are planning a legal challenge against his conditions, in a case that will increase pressure on the government to end the practice of keeping people with severe learning disabilities in “modern-day asylums”.
Nicola, whose 24-year-old son has been detained under the Mental Health Act since September 2017 at Cheadle Royal hospital in Cheshire, said his care is “worse than being in prison” and “people wouldn’t treat an animal” as badly.
She has appointed lawyers at Irwin Mitchell to explore a legal challenge to his circumstances which include constant monitoring by CCTV and outdoor access into a fenced-off garden at the facility which is run by the private Priory Group.
“We fully appreciate that my son has complex needs but he’s being treated terribly,” she said. “He’s locked away from the world and has no physical contact with anyone.”
He also has a learning disability and Tourette syndrome and has been treated for aggression and anxiety. “I can’t even hold his hand or hug him because of the conditions he’s kept in,” his mother said. “Every time I see him it breaks my heart. He has no quality of life, he just exists.”
Campaigners are calling for greater efforts to provide care in the community for people like Nicola’s son and say about 2,000 people are held in such “assessment and treatment units (ATUs)” in hospitals, with about half of them having been there for at least two years. The placements are expensive partly because they require so many staff.
Mencap, a learning disability charity, said many of the people in inpatient units ended up there because of the lack of funding for social care and not because they have a genuine need for inpatient mental health care.
“The government must treat this scandal with the urgency that’s needed,” said Dan Scorer, head of policy at the charity. He said ministers had “broken promise after promise to close beds and support people in the community”.
The standard of some care homes for people with learning disabilities is also under growing scrutiny. In October, the Guardian revealed how conditions at Berkeley House, a care home in Kent run by a private chain, Achieve Together, declined so badly families were given less than a day’s notice of its closure.
Inspectors from the Care Quality Commission found residents “living in inhumane conditions”, according to a recently completed inspection report. There was no toilet roll and “faeces was found on two people’s bedding, pillows and another person’s chair”.
One resident had no bedding at all and staff had damaged residents’ furniture. Inspectors “observed a staff member pushing and forcing a person to sit in their wheelchair against their will” and others using derogatory language. There were not enough qualified staff, one bedroom stank of urine and safeguarding incidents went unreported.
“Staff spoke with people in a harsh tone and were focused on tasks rather than engaging with people to meet their emotional needs,” the inspectors reported, before labelling the facility “inadequate” and triggering its closure.
A spokesperson for Achieve Together, which is ultimately owned by an international investment fund, said: “We unreservedly apologise for the unacceptable shortcomings … We are clear that the provision fell way below the high standards that the people we support rightly expect and deserve, and that we know we can provide.”
The cases come a decade after the Winterbourne View scandal, in which BBC Panorama exposed the abuse of people with learning disabilities in a private hospital in Gloucestershire.
Kirsty Stuart, a public law and human rights lawyer at Irwin Mitchell representing Nicola and her son, known as patient A, said she was now representing 25 other families whose loved ones are in ATUs.
“They feel they have no option but to seek legal advice in order for their loved ones to receive the care they deserve,” she said. “We call on the Priory, the CCG and local authority to work with ourselves and Patient A’s family to reach an agreement over his care, which the family believe should be in the community as this would give him the best quality of life.”
Liverpool city council said it could not comment on individual cases.
A spokesperson for the Priory Group said it was committed to “ensuring well-planned transfers to the most appropriate community settings whenever they become available” but said: “Some individuals with highly complex behaviours, and detained under the Mental Health Act, can be difficult to place despite all parties working very hard over a long period of time to find the right setting.” It said care was continually reviewed to ensure the “least restrictive setting possible”.
A spokesperson for the Department for Health and Social Care said: “We are determined to continue reducing the number of autistic people and people with a learning disability in mental health hospitals as well as the reliance on inpatient care. That’s why we are investing in community services and supporting discharges with £90m of additional funding this financial year.”
NHS Liverpool clinical commissioning group has been contacted for comment.