The Joint Committee on Human Rights has heard shocking evidence of young people with autism and learning disabilities being locked up and isolated in secure hospitals and inpatient units.
Two parents, Julie Newcombe and Jeremy, shared their experiences of how their autistic children have been treated in secure hospitals with the human rights committee. The committee is currently examining the human rights of people with autism and learning disabilities in inpatient units.
Assessment and Treatment Units (ATUs) are intended to be short-term inpatient units for patients with needs which may be difficult to safely treat or assess within the community. Patients can choose to enter an ATU on their own or may be sent there after being sectioned.
Bethany, 17, Subjected to ‘Cruel’ and ‘Inhumane’ Treatment
The committee heard two young people have been kept in ATUs, and moved between numerous secure hospitals, for 24 months and 19 months respectively. Jeremy explained that his 17-year-old daughter Bethany has been subjected to ‘cruel and ‘inhumane’ treatment after spending nearly two years in a secure hospital.
He described how she is often locked up, isolated and fed through a hatch, and how she has no privacy and is watched while showering and going to the toilet.
“My daughter is in St Andrews Hospital, Northampton coming up to two years and the majority of that time has been secluded, locked in a cell with no treatment, no therapy. Bethany is autistic, her part of the spectrum means she cannot cope with situations that give her anxiety – when she’s faced with that situation, the way her brain is formed means her response is either to escape that situation, flight, or when that fails, fight.
“ATUs are full of very distressed people – she witnessed self-harm, she heard people screaming, she heard people distressed, people shouting. Bethany’s condition means she has massive sensory issues and she cannot cope with that environment.
When I visit, I knelt down to talk to my daughter through a six inch square hatch. The hatch they feed her through. That’s the hardest thing I’ve ever, ever had to do.
Jeremy, father of 17 year-old Bethany
“Beth was unable to survive in that environment without resorting to fight or flight. Their answer to that was to lock Bethany away. When I visit, I knelt down to talk to my daughter through a six inch square hatch. The hatch they feed her through. That’s the hardest thing I’ve ever, ever had to do. There is no need for it.”
Jamie, 23, Experienced ‘Punitive’ Treatment
Julie Newcombe shared how her 23-year-old son Jamie was originally placed in an ATU for what she believed would be a few weeks of care and treatment following a change in medication. However, his stay turned into a ‘horrific 19 months’ where he experienced ‘punitive’ treatment.
“When he was detained under the Mental Health Act he spent 19 months in five different inpatient settings, one after the other, he was just rocked on to the next one, because they didn’t know what to do to help him.
“He was originally detained under the Mental Health Act as a result of medication changes and some very inappropriate behaviour management which was essentially punitive. So if he had a bad day and did something inappropriate, he was told he couldn’t go out.
“If you know Jamie, a day inside is a lost day, he needs to be out and about and doing things, so to say to him ‘you can’t go out’ was the ultimate punishment and of course resulted in him panicking and fighting, because he was in meltdown.”
She described how her son suffered a broken arm in an incident in a secure hospital that led to the suspension and dismissal of a staff member.
Newcombe also read testimony on behalf of parents with children in secure hospitals, highlighting the use of medication to sedate patients, physical abuse including a broken clavicle bone discovered weeks after it occurred, carpet burns removing skin from the face and seclusion for nine hours at a time.
Human Rights are Being Disregarded
Are these isolated cases or is the abuse of human rights a generalised problem within this system? Witnesses to Chair of @HumanRightsCtte : There are hundreds of children in these units – many with similar experiences. pic.twitter.com/0d8uyqIEca
— UK Parliament Human Rights Committee (@HumanRightsCtte) December 12, 2018
Campaigners and charities are clear that they believe the rights of people with autism and learning disabilities are being violated on a daily basis in secure hospitals.
Rightful Lives, an exhibition focusing on the human rights of people with learning disabilities and autism, said: “It was good to join Jeremy and Paul Scarrott today as we gave evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights about the abuses suffered by people with autism and learning disabilities in psychiatric hospitals. One thing is for sure now…they can’t say they didn’t know.”
It means all public authorities – including the NHS – have a duty to respect and promote the rights of patients, who should be treated in accordance with key human rights principles such as dignity, equality, respect and autonomy.
The articles of the Human Rights Convention relevant to healthcare include the right to life (Article 2), the right not to be tortured or treated in an inhuman or degrading way (Article 3) and the right not to be discriminated against (Article 14). Article 14 works by guaranteeing everyone equal access to the other rights contained within the Convention.
No one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
Article 3, Human Rights Convention
The text of Article 3 states: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”
The right to family and private life (Article 8) could also be considered, because people with learning disabilities and autism are often placed in secure hospitals hundreds of miles away from home, making family contact extremely difficult.
We are shining a spotlight on the human rights of individuals who are being shut away and made invisible.
Harriet Harman MP, Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights
The chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Harriet Harman MP, explained why they were holding the session, during which MPs and members of the committee were visibly upset by the testimony.
“We are shining a spotlight on the human rights of individuals who are being shut away and made invisible. Regulation is not enough. The only way to stop abuses is to guarantee the full rights of these children, adults and their families.”
In November, the Health Secretary Matt Hancock ordered a review into the use of seclusion and segregation in the care of people with learning disabilities and autism in secure hospitals.
The minister’s intervention follows reports by campaigners and the media about the treatment of more than 2,300 people with autism or learning disabilities held in secure hospitals. Howeever, observers have expressed frustration that the review will not report in full until May 2020.