The Mail on Sunday


The despairing words of a mother whose autistic daughter suffered inhuman cruelty in State care. Her story – and others featured here – underlines why Ministers MUST heed our award-winning campaign


SIX months ago, The Mail on Sunday launched its Locked Up For Autism campaign, exposing how hundreds of young people have been ripped from their families, held in seclusion cells at secure units, fed through hatches like animals, and forcibly drugged. The revelation­s by Ian Birrell sparked five official inquiries. And last week, his compelling journalism was recognised with two prestigiou­s awards: Health Reporter of the Year at the National Press Awards, and Amnesty Internatio­nal’s media award for written news. Today, he reports on some of the most shocking ordeals yet suffered by youngsters.

WHEN Ben Garrod turned 18, he was preparing to move from a specialist residentia­l school into his own flat in a unit for people with autism and learning disabiliti­es. Then his parents discovered that he had been sectioned on the orders of a psychiatri­st and sent to an assessment and treatment unit (ATU) near Bristol funded by the National Health Service. ‘We were not warned he was being taken away – we were just told he’d be there for six weeks to sort out his anxieties,’ says his mother Claire. ‘ I was relieved, thinking they would bring down his stress levels before he moved to his new flat.’

Yet her hopes were soon dashed – for this was the start of Ben’s descent into hell. Over the next 26 months, he was abused, beaten, enslaved and humiliated by staff paid by the state to support a young man with complex needs.

For the ATU was called Winterbour­ne View. This is the place later exposed by an undercover Panorama documentar­y to be inflicting barbaric abuse – a programme that led to ministeria­l promises to stop sending people with autism and learning disabiliti­es into ATUs for extended periods. But pledges to empty such institutio­ns went unfulfille­d, allowing the private sector to muscle in and grab annual fees of up to £730,000 per patient.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has even slowed the timescale applied to the process of releasing people locked up simply for having autism and learning disabiliti­es.

Ben’s story shows why this is so wrong. Not only did he suffer appalling torture that still haunts him, but his lifestyle today – living contentedl­y in the community, at far less cost – proves there was no need for him to languish in a hellhole at the state’s expense.

Five weeks after arriving at Winterbour­ne in 2009 – and two years before the Panorama revelation­s – Ben was punched in the face by nurse Maxwell Nyamukapa, a member of his care team.

He lost two front teeth, his jaw was broken and his gums left so destroyed that dental crowns could not be inserted. ‘It was horrific – I wasn’t prepared for what I saw that day,’ says his mother. ‘ He was drugged, propped up by two people and dribbling blood.’

Staff claimed the teenager ‘had an accident with the floor’, but an emergency dentist became suspicious after evasive answers were given to demands for more detail.

Yet police took no action, and an initial investigat­ion by the Nursing & Midwifery Council claimed there was insufficie­nt evidence to prove Nyamukapa used ‘excessive force’. It was only four months ago – a decade after the incident – that this thug was finally struck off for misconduct.

Yet this was just one sign of abuse being suffered by the autistic teenager. He had carpet burns on his face, his head had been flushed in the toilet and his hair was shaved off. ‘It was just torture, pure torture,’ says Claire.

Panorama showed people shaking in fear after being slapped, having their hair pulled and mouthwash poured in their eyes. One care worker asked a frightened patient if he should get a ‘cheese grater and grate your face off?’

Ben’s parents fought for months to free him – yet his next place of incarcerat­ion was even worse, leaving him profoundly traumatise­d after 15 months in Veilstone care home in North Devon.

‘This was the real place of nightmares,’ says Claire.

Ben was shut screaming in a barren and unheated ‘quiet room’ for hours on end, which contained just a mattress. There was no television, books, clocks or toys. There was not even a toilet, so he would be given a mop and bucket to clear up any mess.

Like other patients, Ben was treated as a slave – lined up and forced to carry out chores for hours on end such as cleaning toilets, clearing sheds, shifting heavy sacks and gardening.

Veilstone closed in 2012 after police began investigat­ing abuse – 24 people were later charged

‘There’d be an outcry if you treated dogs like this’

and 13 were convicted over false imprisonme­nt and perverting the course of justice. Details emerged only in 2016 when reporting restrictio­ns were lifted.

Managers were accused of creating a culture where neglect was the norm, with residents left alone with little food or water for hours, and punished in the ‘quiet room’. One man was sent in there 195 times, including 13 times overnight.

Jolyon Marshall, director of Atlas Project Team, a group running 14 care homes in the region, was jailed for 18 months – later increased to 28 months after the Attorney General ruled that the original sentence was too lenient.

Ben’s traumatic case shows the risks of locking up vulnerable people in such units.

This was finally recognised by the Government in its Transformi­ng Care initiative, aimed at getting people with autism and learning disabiliti­es out of ATUs and secure units.

Yet, scandalous­ly, this has failed to achieve its aims. More than 2,300 people with autism and learning disabiliti­es were locked in ATUs alone in January, with at least half held for more than two years. The number of children inside them has doubled since 2015.

There have been at least 40 deaths over the past three years alone – along with a string of horrific abuse scandals and avoidable fatalities in secure psychiatri­c units involving people with autism and learning disabiliti­es. Yet Ben, now 28, shows how such people can thrive with correct help.

Today he lives in Yorkshire, aided by his beloved companion, a black labrador called Woody, who soothes away his anxieties, and two-to-one support from carers that costs half the price of ATU care. ‘His life is great – he has his own home, a lovely garden and is part of a community,’ says Claire, who is a family support worker.

‘He goes to the cinema, travels to see his sister, and is slowly getting better from all the posttrauma­tic stress.’

She also suffered a breakdown from the trauma. ‘ You feel so guilty for being naive and trusting people,’ she says.

‘I feel like I failed my son because I should have seen all those things being hidden. But at least now he is being treated like a human being.’

Yet Claire remains angry at ministeria­l failures to transform care for so many others.

‘It makes me so sad to know that people like him are suffering as if they are not human,’ she says. ‘If they were dogs there would be a massive outcry.’

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