The distraught father of an autistic teenager who is locked up for 24 hours a day without any physical human contact has told Sky News his daughter “is not an animal”.
Jeremy, whose full name cannot be disclosed to protect his daughter Bethany’s identity, said she is being held in a “cell” where food is served to her by sliding it across the floor.
He said: “I use the word cell because the room has a door you can walk into and is locked. Bethany is locked away in a cell. It is 10ft wide and 14ft to 15ft long.
“There is no furniture except a mattress on the floor that she sleeps on. There is no access to fresh air, not a window she can see out of. It’s incredibly bright.
“Beth’s sensory needs need somewhere calm. It’s noisy, you can hear people on the secure ward. People who are distressed.”
Bethany has autism and was sectioned under the Mental Health Act when she was 15 years old because she was deemed a risk to herself and others.
She has been locked up for almost three year.
Jeremy said: “We no longer have physical contact with Beth. The hospital says it can no longer support her, they see her as a risk, they see her as a potential risk.
“So many of the restrictions they put in place are not because of what she has done but because of what they feel Beth might do. So they now keep her locked away.
“When it comes to feeding Beth, Beth has to move to the end of the room, sit on the floor behind a line. Only then will they open the door and slide her food in and lock the door again. That’s like feeding a vicious dog. My daughter is not an animal.”
This is the latest secure unit where Bethany has been held.
She was moved there after her community placement broke down because she had not been given the proper support she needed.
That was accepted after Jeremy fought a legal battle against NHS England, St Andrew’s Healthcare and his local authority.
He argued successfully they were failing in their duty of care for Bethany. The case was settled out of court with all parties accepting that Bethany’s care was inappropriate.
He said: “When Beth entered St Andrew’s in Northampton we were told that she was going to be assessed, her diagnosis of autism was correct. Instead, within a week she was locked away.
“And she stayed there for weeks which became months and then became two years. The abuse she was suffering there just got worse.”
A joint statement released after the case was settled said: “St Andrew’s Healthcare and NHS England have accepted that the care provided to Bethany did not always comply with the Mental Health Act Code of Practice and the NICE Guidelines on managing violence and aggression. This affected her wellbeing and made it harder for her to return to live in the community.”
But Jeremy says nothing has changed for Bethany. If anything the current unit is even more restrictive.
In a phone conversation with her father Jeremy, Beth said she was encouraged by the all the support she had been given by campaigners who have highlighted her case.
She said: “That’s why I don’t have any issue (telling my story). The last thing I want to do is refuse that extra help. There is no one around and I want lots of people to help.
“I am strong, I am feeling a bit stronger than I was before, but there are certain people who let me down and that’s what I don’t like.
“Makes it a lot easier when the people who are interacting with me are trying their best with me.”
A report into the failure of Bethany’s care now sits on the Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s desk. It makes more than 80 recommendations.
Jeremy said: “There have been so many reviews and recommendations, just placated with review after review. That needs to stop. Matt Hancock needs to make those changes that his report says are needed.”
The Department of Health and Social Care responded by saying: “We have received the review and are looking at it closely.
“The secretary of state for health and social care is dedicated to improving the care of people with learning disabilities and autism and is committed to maximum transparency on publication while protecting privacy as appropriate.”
NHS England told Sky News: “Bethany’s case continues to be assessed by expert clinicians and we are working with her family and Bethany herself, to agree and manage an ongoing plan for her care.”
A joint statement said: “St Andrew’s Healthcare and NHS England have put in place changes to improve the care of people with autistic spectrum disorder including new policies and systems for monitoring compliance with the Mental Health Act Code of Practice in relation to seclusion and long-term segregation; and improved equality training for staff.”
The unit where Beth is being held accepts it is unsuited to her needs and she needs to be moved.
There are currently 2,250 people with a learning disability or autism from England in units, 235 of them are under the age of 18.
Some 355 people have been in institutions/hospitals for 10 years or more, according to NHS Digital’s most recent data for England in September 2019.
Last October, Sky News revealed that 40 people with a learning disability or autism have died while admitted to secure treatment units since 2015 – and told the story of a man who has spent 19 years in one unit.
Jeremy says he has not been able to hold his daughter “for weeks”.
“If I’d known it was going to be the last time I wouldn’t have let her go. Now to sit and talk to her through a thick Perspex window, we can’t even have a proper conversation. She begs to have her hand held.”