When the number of assaults on his vulnerable son reached 150, Glynn Brown stopped counting.
Non-verbal, his “sweet gentle boy” Aaron was admitted to Northern Ireland’s main hospital for adults with severe learning disabilities after suffering devastating mental health problems during his early 20s.
Muckamore Abbey Hospital in Co Antrim was the “jewel in the crown” of mental health facilities, the Brown family was told. But more than a year after Aaron’s admission to the hospital’s psychiatric intensive care unit in spring 2017, Mr Brown received a telephone call from a health trust official who relayed over 40 “incidents” of concern.
“’Aaron’s been kicked on the groin, punched on the shoulder, trailed across the ground with his genitals exposed…' The minute they hung up, I phoned the police.
“When police took over the investigation and seized trust equipment [it was originally a joint investigation between a health trust and the PSNI] the incidents tripled; I stopped counting at 150.”
On Monday, a landmark public inquiry examining systemic abuse of Muckamore patients will hear opening statements. Aaron’s case and the role of his father in raising the alarm will be central to an inquiry that is set to run for years.
Set on a rural site close to Antrim town, Muckamore opened in 1949 and by the 1960s was regarded as a model community, with a farm, staff chalets and even its own cinema. An overhaul of care in the early 1990s led to the discharge of many patients into the community, though some remained there for decades.
Sitting in a Belfast coffee shop a short distance from the inquiry offices in the Cathedral Quarter of the city, Glynn Brown cuts an imposing figure but rushes to greet me with a warm hello.
It is the first time we’ve met in two years after countless phone calls and email exchanges that began in July 2018 when a Muckamore whistleblower contacted me in the Irish News about CCTV footage capturing patient abuse.
Registered nurses were among those who did not realise the cameras were recording, as disturbing images emerged of staff allegedly striking critically ill adults.
Whistleblower claims of patients being placed in a tiny seclusion room for hours – compared to jail by one parent –without supervision were substantiated.
To date, more than 1,500 suspected crimes have been uncovered by detectives in the ward where Aaron Brown was a patient in what is now the biggest criminal adult safeguarding case of its kind in the UK.
Crucial to the police investigation is the CCTV footage – which Mr Brown pursued after being alerted to the first assault, a “punch in the stomach” in August 2017.
“I met a manager and asked if there had been any incidents like this before. It seems incredible now but he said ‘no’ and that it was ‘the first incident of its kind’, which put me on the back foot. I started questioning myself. I was thinking, ‘Am I being paranoid?’” the Dundonald man recalls.
“I got a big apology but the problem was you couldn’t get information. I asked who assaulted him. I was told, ‘I can’t tell you that.’ Was it male or female? He said: ‘I can’t tell you that.’ I asked was it a charge nurse, deputy charge nurse or healthcare support; the reply – ‘I can’t tell you that.’
“I told the manager I was going to the police and that they better have kept recordings. He said the cameras didn’t record – which I found very strange as there were signs everywhere saying you were under surveillance.”
As the unprecedented scale of the abuse began to emerge, relatives of patients became concerned about NHS communication failings – and resorted to Freedom of Information requests to obtain “basic” details about the case.
The initial slow pace of the police investigation gave rise to further frustration as families looked to similar inquiries in England, where care assistants were jailed within a year of an undercover BBC Panorama investigation into the Winterbourne View home.
Political pledges of support for a public inquiry during Stormont’s three-year collapse went nowhere as the civil servant running the Department of Health said he was powerless to act. An outcry followed when leaked correspondence revealed the department believed an inquiry “wasn’t in the public interest”.
“The whole system ran for cover when this scandal broke. Everybody failed: the health trust, adult safeguarding, the watchdog and the politicians,” Mr Brown says.
“On the day the story first appeared, two trust officials came to my house and apologised. The front page headline was ‘13 now suspended’. As they were sitting down, I said: ‘Is this story true?’
“They both answered simultaneously – one said yes and the other said no.
“Everything was kept very tight, there was a long drip, drip, drip of information.
“It was traumatic; you were led to believe Aaron was going in for four to six weeks for assessment and treatment. People don’t understand; once you section your relative you lose total control. We had no say in anything.
“So we formed our own pressure group and went hell for leather from that.”
More than 80 Muckamore staff – mainly from the nursing workforce – have been suspended by the Belfast trust, the organisation responsible for the hospital.
There have been 34 arrests and eight people faces charges linked to alleged abuse.
A specialist team of detectives was employed to view more than 300,000 hours of CCTV footage – a trust review assessed just 20 minutes of sample footage – and further files are currently under review by the Public Prosecution Service.
The North’s Minister for Health Robin Swann announced the inquiry in September 2020, saying: “I cannot find words to adequately describe the scale of this betrayal of trust by this scandal.”
The inquiry team has the remit to investigate “events” going back more than 20 years.
Core objectives are to determine “why the abuse happened and the range of circumstances that allowed it to happen”, as well as ensuring “such abuse does not occur again at Muckamore Abbey Hospital” or “any other institution providing similar services in Northern Ireland”.
Reflecting on the families’ “four long years” of campaigning, Mr Brown becomes emotional.
His wife Karen has been diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and continues to receive counselling.
“Like all parents of disabled children, you’re aware you have a finite time on earth, so what I’m hoping is that if I’m still alive by the time this inquiry completes that it will show the incompetence, the lack of governance, the sheer neglect by all parties concerned; this has to go from top to bottom,” he says.
“I’m hoping there will be radical root-and-branch reform and that the end result will ensure that vulnerable patients are in much safer environments. “It consumes your life but the scary thing is if I hadn’t pursued this, the unprecedented abuse my son and others were subjected to on a daily basis would still be going on; no one would be aware of the extent of it. It was too big to let go.”
Aaron was discharged from Muckamore just before the Covid-19 pandemic and “is doing very well” in supported living accommodation, while staying with his family several nights a week.
“We have three other boys. They feel let down by the system and what their brother had to endure. We want heads to roll,” adds Mr Brown.
Human rights lawyer Claire McKeegan represents the Action for Muckamore (AFM) pressure group headed by Mr Brown. He singles out her “incredible” support.
She is preparing for Monday’s hearing and is representing 32 families.
“It is actually the largest adult safeguarding scandal in a public hospital in the UK, so it can’t be understated how much went wrong,” she says.
“Every single day when I speak to a client I’m further shocked. As someone who’s been involved in it for over three years now, the testimonies you get every day are horrifying.
“You’re dealing with people who are the most vulnerable in our society who were betrayed on a catastrophic level to a point where they’re still suffering today; it appears those staff, management and governance did this with impunity – because they felt they were going to get away with it.”