Áras Attracta scandal due to ‘accepted culture of abuse’

The sister of a woman who suffered sustained verbal and physical threats at Áras Attracta says the scandal has nothing to do with cutbacks and everything to do with "an accepted culture" of abuse.

Sheila Ryan, whose 65-year-old sister, Mary Garvan, featured prominently in last night’s Prime Time on RTÉ, hit out at any excuses put forward by officials after being faced with what her sister has had to endure.

Read More: Three inquiries underway, nine staff suspended on pay after shocking care-home footage

Speaking on RTÉ Radio’s Today with Sean O’Rourke after she asked to be interviewed in response to clams the issues are due to staff shortages, Ms Ryan said regardless of worker numbers her relative was treated like she “didn’t have any rights”.

She said her sister had been at the home for 20 years and in institutional care since the age of seven because, “in those days, there were no services” for people with intellectual disabilities. 

Ms Ryan said her family believed Mary was receiving the care she needed at Áras Attracta, even after the death of another relative in 2012 in circumstances now being investigated by gardaí.

Read More: RTÉ has almost 300 hours of footage showing mistreatment of care home residents

However, the covert footage of the abuse Mary suffered — which included being kicked, threatened, and prevented from going to the bathroom — was something Ms Ryan said never expected to see “in the 21st century”.

“This is about an accepted culture of abuse,” she said.

“We heard about institutional abuse in the past, you’d think we’d have learned from it. These are people from the 21st century. It’s inexcusable, absolutely inexcusable.”

In the days since the HSE became aware of the RTÉ expose, Ms Ryan said she has been contacted by “various managers assuring us they will do this, that, and the other”.

However, she said that until less emphasis was put on cutbacks and more on “setting out a culture” of care for vulnerable people, she was not confident changes would take hold.

“The Áras Attracta website says now that €1.2m has been put aside for a national action plan for no abuse,” said Ms Ryan.

“Why only now, what have the managers done? The buck stops at management level.”

Speaking on last night’s programme, NUI Galway’s director of the centre for disability law and policy, Gerard Quinn, mirrored Ms Ryan’s anger, saying: “It’s a relationship of threats and physical force. I’ve seen footage like this before but, to be frank, it’s from eastern Europe, it’s not from Ireland, and I feel ashamed about this.”

Read More: Inspections alone not enough to protect people in care

Covert inspections of facilities possible

Health Minister Leo Varadkar may send in undercover inspectors to find out the true scale of institutional abuse in health facilities, after admitting the current system is failing to protect those in care.

Speaking as RTÉ’s shocking expose into what is happening at the Áras Attracta home for people with intellectual disabilities was broadcast last night, the minister said the footage showed serious problems were being missed.

In July, state watchdog the Health Information Quality Authority (Hiqa) gave the HSE-run facility in Swinford, Co Mayo, a clean bill of health after previously raising concerns over its care. However, in 200 hours of covert footage by an undercover RTÉ reporter and a secret camera in late October and early November, the broadcaster found:

- Women aged 53 to 75 with severe intellectual disabilities kicked, hit with keys, dragged across the floor and sat on by a senior male manager;

- The same residents being told “nobody wants you”, kicked when they needed to go to the bathroom, and threatened when they didn’t sit in a seat properly, which involved pointing their head down and facing the wall;

- And staff joking about a former colleague who “you’d be afraid of” because she “reported everything”. They said it “worked against her” as “she’s not here” any more.

The incidents — which have caused outrage nationwide and led to separate HSE, Hiqa, and Garda investigations into the scandal — were confined to one of four units in the facility.

Read More: RTÉ report on care abuses: Enough talk, it’s time to take action

However, Mr Varadkar said the clear inference from the footage and the fact it was not uncovered by Hiqa inspections was that the existing system was not ensuring the safety of vulnerable people and that undercover inspectors may now be needed.

“Obviously the existing systems are not good enough. It is sad that we have to do it, but the only way to satisfy ourselves that this is not happening in other places is to have our own undercover inspections,” he said.

While the potential move appeared to be backed by HSE director general, Tony O’Brien, Hiqa’s chief executive, Phelim Quinn, said it may pose more problems than it solves.

The senior official said such covert operations may prevent successful cases being taken in court against perpetrators, and could impact on the “dignity and privacy” of residents at facilities.

Under existing checks, just 2% of the country’s facilities for people with intellectual disabilities are meeting clearly set out standards.

Meanwhile, despite the HSE launching its own investigation and Mr O’Brien explaining he and others should feel “betrayed” by the abuse in an email to all HSE workers, patient group Inclusion Ireland has said the HSE cannot be trusted to oversee the inquiry.

The Psychiatric Nurses Association’s national secretary, Noel Giblin, who worked at Aras Attracta from 2005 to 2010, said he was “shocked and appalled”.

However, he claimed the problems were “management” who told him residents were “the dregs of society” and staff shortages, despite RTÉ’s footage showing adequate staff levels.

Enda Kenny told the Dáil that criminal charges could follow the RTÉ expose of the care home.

Mr Kenny said the idea that people with intellectual disabilities could be slapped or sat on is “utterly intolerable and unacceptable to us.”

The Taoiseach said he greeted the news about the care home with a feeling of “dread and anger”.

Mr Kenny was responding to questioning from Sinn Féin’s Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, who said he had a family member with an intellectual disability.

“This behaviour has got to be rooted out once and for all. It isn’t only about Áras Attracta. This is not an isolated incident,” Mr Ó Caoláin said.

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