The lawyer representing a number of victims of abuse at two residential homes in Devon run by Atlas Projects Ltd has welcomed the convictions of Atlas founder Paul Hewitt and a number of directors, managers and employees from the residential homes. 

Thirteen people have been convicted of the abuse of vulnerable residents at the Veilstone and Gatooma residential homes in north Devon in 2010 and 2011. The trials took place last year but reporting restrictions were in place until today.

The residential homes were supposed to provide care for residents with behavioural issues and learning disabilities.

Over four trials at Bristol Crown Court the juries heard that residents were left alone in bare rooms for long periods without heating and with no access to bathroom facilities, food, a clock, radio or television.

During the trials the prosecution described actions of the defendants as “organised and systematic abuse” that was “unnecessarily cruel”. The court heard that the bare rooms were used by staff at the homes to control or punish residents.

The abuse came to light when one former resident contacted the Care Quality Commission (CQC) in July 2011 and the police became involved. An unannounced inspection was carried out by the CQC in October 2011 and the two homes were later closed with Atlas going into administration.

Alison Millar from law firm Leigh Day, who is representing several of the former residents of the Devon care homes, one of whom was also a victim of abuse at Winterbourne View before being placed at Veilstone and suffering further abuse, said:

“We believe this is a significant verdict for the future welfare of people in residential care.

"These criminal court proceedings against Atlas Projects Ltd founder Paul Hewitt and Atlas managers and employees underline the legal responsibilities those who manage and profit from care facilities have for the physical and psychological well-being of their residents.

"It also highlights the responsibility of those public bodies who failed these vulnerable individuals by not commissioning appropriate facilities and therefore should retain responsibility for the services they have contracted out.

"These verdicts against the owners and managers of Atlas Projects Ltd and those they employed, are a reminder that Health and Safety legislation protects the rights of the most vulnerable and we would call on the Government to ensure that more is done to strengthen such safeguards."

Jan Tregelles, Chief Executive of Mencap, and Vivien Cooper, Chief Executive of The Challenging Behaviour Foundation, commented:

“Throughout the three trials last year, juries have listened to horrific accounts of people with a learning disability being abused by those who were being paid to support them. The evidence that has emerged has been chilling. The survivors and their family members have been brave and dignified throughout the five year build up to these trials and 11 months of legal proceedings.

“Atlas Project Team claimed to provide specialist care for people with a learning disability, at a cost of up to £4,000 per week per person. Staff were paid to care for people with a learning disability but instead of doing so imprisoned them repeatedly for long periods, often in cold rooms with no sanitation. Despite several warning signs, it took far too long for the abusive practices at the care homes to be exposed. Poor commissioning by a number of local authorities and weak inspection allowed an abusive culture to develop and sustain itself with devastating consequences for individuals and their families.

“People with a learning disability abused in Atlas' services, and their families, have waited more than five years for justice. Devon and Cornwall Police must be commended for their work to ensure this case came to court.

“These trials have brought into sharp focus the unacceptable attitudes and lack of respect for people with a learning disability that exists in society. Across the country thousands of people with a learning disability, autism and behaviour that challenges are still subject to unacceptable practices, including the use of dangerous restraint techniques, the administration of anti-psychotic medication when they don’t have a mental illness and the use of solitary confinement. This environment, which enables commissioners to spend thousands of pounds per week of public money on the wrong type of services with no accountability, must change.”