Anger at care home ill-treatment

Relatives of elderly dementia sufferers who were ill-treated at a nursing home by four care workers have spoken of their heartbreak and anger.

Residents at Hillcroft nursing home in Slyne-with-Hest, Lancaster, were mocked, bullied and tormented because they would have no memory of the abuse, with one man having his foot stamped on deliberately and another nearly tipped out of his wheelchair.

The vulnerable victims were also pelted with bean bags and balls at their heads "for entertainment".

In November, Carol Ann Moore, 54, Katie Cairns, 27, and Gemma Pearson, 28, were found guilty by a jury at Preston Crown Court of ill-treatment or neglect of a person who lacks capacity, under the Mental Capacity Act, after a four week trial.

Moore, the care team leader from Lancaster, was found guilty of one count in which she struck a resident. The court heard she walked up to the male victim and slapped him after a complaint was made from the man's wife about a lack of activities at the home.

Cairns, from Morecambe, was convicted of three charges including stamping on a man's foot, throwing bean bags at another male and mocking another.

Pearson, of Carnforth, was also convicted of attempting to tip another resident out of his wheelchair.

Darren Smith, 35, from Lancaster, admitted ahead of the trial eight counts of ill-treatment in which he threw bean bags or ball at eight residents.

All the offences spanned from May 2010 to September 2011 and related to seven men and one woman, all aged in their 70s or 80s, with the eldest aged 85.

Moore, of Ripon Avenue; Pearson, of Hill Street; Cairns, of Riverview Court; and Smith, of Howgill Avenue, will be sentenced from 2.30pm today.

A number of victim impact statements from relatives were read out in court.

One son of a victim chose to enter the witness box to give his statement in person.

Michael Rowlinson said his family's decision to place his father, Norman, a retired chartered surveyor, into care was the "worst day of our lives".

He said that decision was not taken lightly because his father, married for 57 years, had Alzheimer's and was unable to give his opinion.

He said: "We had feelings of guilt for not being able to look after him.

"Our feelings of guilt only worsened when we found out that Dad had been subjected to humiliation and ill-treatment by those who were trusted to care for him.

"We feel angry this could have been allowed to happen to Dad and sorry that Mum had to learn about it."

He said evidence heard at the trial had "saddened us greatly".

"The experience has broken down our trust," he continued.

"We will always wish that we would have been able to look after Dad at home."

He asked for the sentences to reflect the crimes committed against "vulnerable people who could not stand up for themselves".

Mr Rowlinson said a clear signal had to be sent by the courts that such behaviour could not be tolerated.

He asked: "What sort of human being treats another with such disrepect?"

He added that he thought it was clear that management at Hillcroft had covered up the incidents and that they and the owners had failed to ensure the safety of the residents.

Mr Rowlinson said he did not believe the Care and Quality Commission (CQC) had held Hillcroft to account.

He said he was still awaiting formal apologies from the defendants and Hillcroft's management and directors.

The prosecutor read out statements from other relatives.

A daughter of one victim said she was "devastated" when she was informed of the abuse.

"She has felt a huge amount of guilt because she had moved her father to the home because she thought it was the better place to be in," said Miss Johnson.

Describing him as an "exceptional father" who she "loves dearly", she spoke of sleepless nights after learning of the ill-treatment.

The prosecutor said: "She feels grateful to those people who were strong and brave enough to come forward.

"She wants to thank them for their tenacity and says without them there would have been more victims and abuse. She says she hopes their bravery makes it more acceptable for people to whistleblow when they witness abuse."

The woman said she wanted the case to set a precedent and for such abuse to stop.

Another relative described how she was informed of the abuse against her mother.

"To receive a letter and to be informed that your parent has possibly been physically abused in a place that is thought to be comfortable for them is heartbreaking," she said.

She said she wanted to know why the defendants had acted like they did and what they would think if their parents were treated in the same manner.

The son of the man whose foot was stamped on also thanked whistleblowers in the case who were "brave enough" to come forward.

The wife of another victim described feeling that members of staff had been "laughing at the families behind their backs" and that the carers had abused her trust.

The defendants all worked the day shift on the Coniston Unit at the home which housed residents diagnosed with dementia and displaying "challenging behaviour", the court heard.

Opening the case, Kathryn Johnson, prosecuting, told the court the four defendants ill-treated residents in "varying ways".

"They mocked them, bullied them and on occasions deliberately assaulted them," she said.

Miss Johnson said bean bags should have been used as part of recreational therapy but they were thrown so hard and fast that residents were unable to catch them.

"This caused frustration and anger in the residents, whereas the defendants would laugh," she said.

Smith and Moore would say "they were doing it for their entertainment as they were bored" and if residents objected they "would be subjected to it all the more".

Evidence was heard that on one occasion Smith was discovered in bed with a resident and another male member of staff.

Pearson was seen to tip a resident out of his wheelchair when he failed to stand up, causing him to stumble.

The court heard that Pearson also took "great delight" in going behind residents and blowing in their ears.

A receptionist and a cleaner both reported to management that Moore had struck a resident, among other concerns about staff behaviour in September 2011.

The defendants were suspended but then reinstated weeks later.

Smith constantly described one colleague as a "grass" and was "obstructive and rude" when he was sent on a retraining course.

In December 2011 and January and March 2012, the Care Quality Commission (CQC) received anonymous emails about the home.

In May 2012, Lancashire County Council's Adult Services Social Care department made police aware of a complaint of ill-treatment and a multi-agency inquiry began.

The defendants were arrested in October 2012 and told police they were not responsible for any abuse.

They blamed office politics, cliques in work and in-fighting between staff for the claims of abuse and denied all the charges.

Following the convictions, the families of the victims said they thought there had been failings by the owners and management of Hillcroft, Lancashire County Council Adult Services, NHS Lancashire and the CQC.

They said that families, in particular those with relatives in challenging behaviour units, should be able to contribute to periodic reviews of standards.

In mitigation, Duncan Nightingale, for Smith, said his client "bitterly regrets his actions".

"Through me, he invites the relatives of victims to accept that those sentiments are genuinely put forward and have not been put forward simply because he has been caught," he said.

"The defendant fully accepts that these people were entitled to be treated with dignity and respect, and the defendant accepts he has not done that.

"He cannot the turn clock back but if he could he would. These people have been badly let down by Mr Smith and he fully appreciates that."

In his pre-sentence report, Smith had expressed "disgust" at his own behaviour and felt he had let himself and his family down, said Mr Nightingale.

Moore was described by her barrister, Jeanette Landale, as someone who might be considered "a pillar of the community" - a comment which drew laughter from the public gallery.

She said it was noted that the victim in her case was not injured and had suffered no lasting impact.

Indeed, the man's wife had not provided a victim impact statement and it was understood she was supportive of Moore, said Miss Landale.

Her client maintained her denial but the offence she was convicted of should be set against a lifetime of caring for people with disabilities.

"She was held in extremely high regard by those who knew her and worked with her... and known for her kind and patient manner," she said.

Moore's health had suffered "significantly" since she had been charged, the court heard.

She had various complaints including raised blood pressure and an impending knee operation.

Arguing for a suspended jail sentence, Miss Landale said an immediate custodial term would have an effect on her care for her own elderly, housebound mother.

Andrew Nuttall, representing Cairns, said his client was the least trained, qualified and experienced of the defendants.

Her pre-sentence report said she had possibly fitted into the working environment she was exposed to.

She said she now cut an "isolated figure" who was unemployed and "realistically unemployable".

Cairns had been suffering from depression since January 2012 and was a person with a history which may have made her a vulnerable person herself, said Mr Nuttall.

Barrister Sophie Cartwright said Pearson had worked as a carer since the age of 16 but that career was now lost.

"That is a devastating consequence of the conviction," she said.

Mitigating for a suspended jail sentence, Miss Cartwright said Pearson was currently unemployed and had made a recent suicide attempt.

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