Four staff members at a specialist hospital unit who were exposed by an undercover BBC Panorama documentary mistreating vulnerable patients have narrowly escaped jail.
Whorlton Hall, a 17-bed independent unit for people with complex needs near Barnard Castle, County Durham, was shut down after the TV show aired and a police investigation was launched.
Following a trial at Teesside Crown Court, four men were convicted of mistreating patients who had autism and learning difficulties by taunting, mocking and goading them.
The BBC sent reporter Olivia Davies undercover to work at the unit in 2019 and used a hidden camera to expose the poor treatment the patients received behind the closed doors of the secure hospital.
Judge Christopher Smith, sentencing the four, told them: “They needed a caring approach from those who had responsibility for looking after them.
“Each of you individually failed those patients and their families.”
He told each of the defendants they were to be jailed but there were tears of relief in the dock and in the public gallery when he finally revealed that those sentences could be suspended, given the length of time since the offending and the nine months that had passed since conviction.
Senior care assistant Peter Bennett, 54, of Billingham, Teesside, was convicted of two counts of ill-treatment after he deliberately caused distress to a patient with a fear of balloons and spoke in French to another patient with communication problems and then intimidating her.
He was given a four-month jail term, suspended for 18 months, and was ordered to complete 280 hours of unpaid work.
Matthew Banner, who the court heard was homeless and has at times been sleeping in his car, was convicted of five counts of ill-treatment.
The judge said the 44-year-old had probably been inspired by Bennett to also goad the same patient with balloons, causing her “unnecessary distress” and threatening to bring in male carers for her, despite knowing she much preferred female staff.
He received the same sentence as Bennett.
Ryan Fuller, 28, of Barnard Castle, was convicted of two counts of ill-treatment after he showed the undercover reporter how he had trained a male patient get on the floor when instructed, then made as if to jump on the stricken man with an wrestling-style elbow strike, although he did not do it.
The judge said: “By doing so, you stole his dignity – demeaning him in front of others for your own entertainment.”
He was sentenced to three months in jail, suspended for 15 months, and must carry out 240 hours of unpaid work.
John Sanderson, now 26 but 21 at the time, of Willington, was convicted of one count of ill-treatment after he goaded a patient to hit him and left him in an agitated state.
His six-week jail term was suspended for a year, during which he must carry out 200 hours of unpaid work.
Judge Smith acknowledged that looking after the patients with complex needs was “stressful and demanding work”.
“But that cannot excuse behaviour which reflected a marked departure from the expected standards of humanity, kindness, help and support you were required to provide,” the judge said.
Outside court, Stephanie Donington, of Crown Prosecution Service North East, said: “The provision of round-the-clock support for patients with complex needs carries with it an enormous duty of care.
“Many of the patients at Whorlton Hall, including patients with mental health issues or significant physical disabilities, were wholly dependent on professional support every day of their lives.
“For each of those sentenced today, it was clear from the evidence in this case that there were occasions where the care they provided was not only devoid of the appropriate respect and kindness required, but also crossed the line into criminal offending.”
Outside court, Detective Chief Superintendent David Ashton, who led the “extensive” investigation, said: “The case raises concerns, particularly for those who have vulnerable relatives or friends who require specialist care.
“We hope that the successful prosecution of the defendants in this case gives confidence to anyone who may be concerned about abuse in a care environment to speak out and report such matters.”
After the sentencing, Dan Scorer, head of policy and public affairs at learning disability charity Mencap, said: “Today’s sentencing shows that people who abuse and neglect in health and care settings will be held to account and have to face up to the pain and suffering they have caused.
“It must never be tolerated.”
He said the case highlighted how more than 2,000 people with a learning disability, were still “locked away in inpatient mental health hospitals” and he urged the Government to change the Mental Health Act.