Northern Ireland

Ralph's Close abuse: Health trust apologises to families

The Western Health Trust has apologised to the families of 11 vulnerable adults after an investigation confirmed allegations of abuse.

The abuse happened at the Ralph's Close residential home in Londonderry.

Eleven members of staff at the home remain suspended.

The investigation followed allegations made by whistleblowers that men and women with severe learning disabilities were being physically and verbally abused.

The allegations came to the trust's attention in 2012. A police investigation was triggered almost immediately.

There are 16 adult residents at the home based in Gransha Park, aged 18 and up. They are accommodated in four buildings split between male and female.

Physical abuse

The BBC understands that not all of the residents were affected by the allegations and that apologies have been issued to 11 of the 16 families.

A total of 45 allegations were made covering the period from 2010 and 2012. Of those, 22 allegations were substantiated.

Five were of intentional physical abuse, and four were of verbal abuse involving several members of staff.

While the trust would not detail the other substantiated allegations they confirmed there were no allegations of sexual abuse.

An additional 34 issues of concern were also identified.

Kieran Downey, the director of social work at the trust, said: "We have been apologising to the families and we have been taking the opportunity over this past two and a half days to meet with the families individually to apologise for any distress and hurt that have been caused.

"The trust has been shocked by the allegations but it has been determined to carry out a very robust and thorough investigation to ensure that we get to the bottom of all that has happened.

'Most vulnerable'

"I want to give the assurance that this will not be tolerated within the Western Health and Social Care Trust, and that any allegations that are made, or anybody who comes forward with any information, it will be considered and it will be looked at in a very thorough and robust way."

Mr Downey said that the 16 residents of Ralph's Close "are the most vulnerable and most complex people that we provide services for".

He added: "I think every member of the trust has been affected by this and is determined to put it right."

Mr Kieran Downey also said he could not comment on the ongoing disciplinary process.

A police investigation into the allegations concluded that there was no medical evidence of wilful neglect that would constitute criminal abuse in a court of law. The Public Prosecution Service then advised police investigators and no further action was taken.

According to the trust, the adult safeguarding team carried out a "rigorous investigation" and has made 19 recommendations.

These include learning disability services reviewing arrangements for supervision to ensure all professional requirements, minimum care standards and best practice in residential care are adhered to.

In a statement, the health trust said many of the recommendations have been put in place.

Serious injuries

The regulatory body, the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA), carried out its own unannounced inspection of the home this month.

Gransha Close
Sixteen residents live at the Ralph's Close home based in Gransha Park in Londonderry

While the report is in draft form, according to the trust it indicates positive changes in both the working practices and culture at the home.

However, an August 2012 inspection by the regulators was far from satisfactory. An unannounced inspection identified a significant number of accidents, incidents, unexplained bruising and injuries involving residents that had not been reported to RQIA in line with regulations.

Inspectors discovered that a number of residents had sustained serious injuries as a result of several incidents - but again these were not recorded in the home or reported to the RQIA.

Also, they had not been notified of an incident involving staff misconduct in the home in September 2011.

There were errors in the administration of medicines and significant detail was omitted in a number of incidents and accident forms.

The BBC has been contacted by a whistleblower who raised a number of disturbing details about the level of alleged abuse directed towards some residents at Ralph's Close - including allegations of physical and verbal abuse, and the humiliation of several vulnerable adults.

'Badly handled'

In documents seen by the BBC, they said they had witnessed "unbelievable abuse of the most vulnerable members of our society who are in our care in the trust", and that they were "afraid to produce the evidence that would have shown the abuse happened" because they could lose their jobs.

The BBC understands that some of those members of staff who are suspended are unhappy about how the investigation has been handled.

A source said that the entire matter had been "badly handled" and that the outcome of the investigation had made some of the allegations sound worse than what had actually happened.

Health Minister Edwin Poots told the assembly: "This highlights the challenges we face in protecting the most vulnerable people in our society, people who cannot always speak for themselves and who rely on others for their care.

"There is no room in the health and social care family for those who exploit their position of trust by inflicting suffering and harm, or indeed, standing by and ignoring others who do.

"The findings [of the investigation] are disturbing, but it is always important that such issues are brought into the open so that we can take all appropriate action and secure improvements in services."

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