Legislation on the care of vulnerable adults must be strengthened, the father of a disabled man found dead earlier this year has said, following his son’s inquest this week.
Worcestershire’s deputy coroner, Margaret Barnard, recorded an open verdict on the death of 21-year-old James Hughes. His body was found hidden in a suitcase in April, 48 hours after his mother and primary carer, Heather Wardle, was found dead nearby. The coroner recorded a verdict of suicide in her case.
James, who had a rare genetic condition, needed full-time care. He had the mental age of an 18-month-old, could not speak and was doubly incontinent.
In an interview with Community Care, his father, Paul Hughes, who was separated from Wardle, criticised the level of care provided to his son and the “complacency” of Worcestershire social services. He added: “I am shocked with the full extent of the failings revealed in court.”
Hughes said he wants a change in the law to guarantee vulnerable adults access to a dedicated social worker and a named GP and multi-disciplinary reviews of their care needs, at least every year.
The inquest found that James had not had a social worker or an annual care review for three years, since turning 18. James had not seen his doctor for three years, who had been giving a repeat prescription for strong drugs for epilepsy.
He had four days of respite care a week split across two day care centres, one run by the NHS and one by an independent provider.
Four months before he was found dead, carers raised concerns about his falling weight with their managers.
His mother then stopped taking him to the care centres. Phone calls were made to the house about his attendance but Wardle said James was with his father.
Hughes said: “They were fobbed off that I had taken him. She played me and the social services off each other.”
He added: “This was an avoidable tragedy. Heather was a brilliant mother for 21 years, and she was in enough contact with services for them to have done something.
“Just one phone call to me or to his doctor would have stopped everything and could have saved James. In court they said they didn’t call me because they didn’t want to antagonise his mother.”
Hughes said that Wardle never had a carer’s assessment, or was told of her right to have one, and that he had no idea how much she was struggling. He said: “No one knew the stresses she was under, taking anti-depressants and drinking. I didn’t know – we weren’t together, we only used to talk about James. She always appeared very bubbly.”
Hughes spoke of his respect for James’s respite carers and blamed over-loading of case work and poor management for the failings identified in the three-day inquest.
Not a social work basher
He said: “I am not a social work basher, they do a fantastic job, and I know that they are under-resourced. Something has to radically change. It’s not possible to do your job in those circumstances.”
The coroner said that there were “obvious failings in social services” but rejected a verdict of neglect by social services and Wardle, the verdict that Hughes had been hoping for
Hughes added: “I am gutted with the open verdict. There was no assessment, they completely ignored the warnings from their own staff, and no proper records were kept. What is neglect then?”
Eddie Clarke, director of adult and community services at Worcestershire Council, said: “Whilst no one person, action or lack of action directly contributed to the death of James or his mother we have concluded that a combination of factors across the organisations involved meant that when James stopped attending services our response fell below the standards we wish to provide for those receiving our care and I personally very much regret this was the case.”
Serious case review
Clarke added that a serious case review had been held to investigate the case and that an action plan would be implemented based on the findings.
Hughes said that he didn’t think lessons had been learnt and that he is seeking legal advice about whether to appeal against the coroner’s verdict.
He said: “I don’t know if it would make anything happen but perhaps some of James’s peers might be more protected. It’s a cliché that something good can come out of this but it gives me something to focus on because the thought of James kept me going through all this. At the moment I’m numb.”
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