Two years after 12 former staff members were convicted over the “systematic neglect” of residents, the Devon Safeguarding Adults Board has released its review into whether more could have been done to prevent the abuse that took place at Veilstone, near Bideford, and its sister home Gatooma, near Holsworthy. The Atlas Safeguarding Adult Review can be found on the DSAB website.

The residential care homes, operated by the now defunct Atlas Project Team, were supposed to provide ‘specialist care’ to individuals with a learning disability at a cost of up to £4,000 per week. Many of the placements were funded or arranged by NHS or local authority commissioners. All Atlas care homes were closed in 2012 following inspections by the Care Quality Commission (CQC).

The report highlights a lack of oversight by commissioners of the quality of care delivered by Atlas and a fundamental lack of challenge to the services provided by Atlas. It acknowledges that the expertise of families was not recognised. The review also recognises that there remains insufficient local provision for adults with complex support needs.

For years families have pushed for answers after reporting that Atlas staff imposed a rigid and dehumanising regime in their homes. Failure to comply with instructions could result in a resident being locked alone in a bare, unheated room without a toilet. Residents were sometimes forced to stay in seclusion rooms overnight, without a bed or access to their medication. During the criminal trials of Atlas staff members, evidence was heard that some residents were stripped and left in the rooms naked.

Other punishments imposed by Atlas staff included denying residents food and drink, shouting at residents and making threats, cancelling trips out, and preventing family from visiting. The use of physical restraint and force against residents was routine. Phone calls out to family members were monitored by staff.

While the homes were operating, relatives were not made aware of the seclusion rooms, or the punishing daily regime their loved ones were subjected to. Some parents and siblings did raise concerns about how their relatives were being treated, and have been waiting for today’s Devon Safeguarding Adults Board report to understand why their complaints were not acted upon.

Proposals to protect individuals from harm have been put forward by some of the families of former Atlas residents and these have been published as part of today’s report.

These recommendations include:

  • A national awareness campaign aimed at care staff.
  • Unannounced visits to placements by parents, carers and social services.
  • Ensuring that people’s life stories are known to commissioners, and shared with service providers.

Law firm Leigh Day represents a number of former residents of Veilstone and Gatooma, and their families, who are bringing civil cases for redress. The civil claims argue that the mistreatment and abuse that residents were subjected to was akin to torture, and a breach of their human rights.

Claire and Emma, relatives of Ben, who lived at Veilstone, said: ‘We welcome this review into the experiences of the vulnerable people placed in the ‘care’ of Atlas Project Team Ltd, including our much-loved son and brother. Whilst the recommendations revealed today will do nothing to change the abuse that Ben experienced eight years ago, or the trauma that endures to this day, we hope they will go some way to protecting others whose voices can be so brutally silenced by the systems meant to protect them’

In response to the report, Alison Millar, Head of the Abuse Team at Leigh Day said: 

"Seven years after the Atlas homes were closed, we know that institutions where individuals with learning disabilities are treated as second class citizens are still prevalent throughout the UK. Instead of being supported to lead full and fulfilling lives in their community, too many people continue to live in placements where the overuse of restraint and seclusion of residents is the norm. As today’s report shows, these outdated models of care create environments where individual human rights are too easily breached, often without scrutiny, and with devastating consequences."

The Challenging Behaviour Foundation, which supports people with severe learning disabilities and their families, said:

“The people with learning disabilities who were abused while in the care of Atlas Care Homes Ltd continue to live with the trauma of that abuse, as do their families, and this does not feel like justice.

“There is a significant body of evidence about how to provide good support for people with learning disabilities and learning from previous abuse scandals about how to safeguard vulnerable adults. The recommendations from this report and others must be prioritised by those commissioning and providing care to people with learning disabilities. People with learning disabilities have a right to feel valued and safe, wherever they live.”