Worcestershire Council has been accused of a number of failures over the death of a 22-year-old man with severe learning disabilities whose body was found stuffed into a suitcase at his family home.
James Hughes’ decomposing remains were discovered on 23 April 2008 in the back garden of his Redditch address after his mother, Heather Wardle, 39, had committed suicide some days earlier.
A serious case review into the incident, which was completed in December last year and published on the council’s website last week, revealed that there had been serious delays between staff raising concerns over Hughes’s welfare and attempts to make direct contact with him.
Failure to review care criticised
The local learning disability team was first alerted in December 2007 when day centre and respite unit staff reported that Hughes had lost a lot of weight and had stopped attending his two day care placements. No action was taken until January when his mother was contacted by phone and the team was reassured that he would start attending again, which did not happen.
It was not until March that a member of the learning disability team visited Hughes at home but was unable to see him.
The learning disability team was also criticised for not having reviewed Hughes’ needs since October 2005, in breach of statutory guidance, which calls for annual reviews. Adult services had also failed to carry out an annual review of his continence requirements and his GP had kept a prescription for his epilepsy going despite not having seen him personally for four years.
Over-reliance on mother for information
The SCR also said that there had been an over-reliance on Wardle for information on Hughes’ wellbeing. It continued: “… it meant that professionals fell short of expected standards of assessment and review of his needs.”
The review concluded that there had been a “widespread lack of understanding” of the county-wide inter-agency adult protection policy. Concerns were also expressed over the “professional performance” of some of the staff involved with the case.
Worcestershire Safeguarding Adults Committee chair Eddie Clarke said that the council had produced an action plan based on the review’s recommendations and had issued revised training and guidance for frontline managers and staff.
Disciplinary action taken against staff
He added: “Whilst I can confirm that disciplinary action was taken where appropriate it would be inappropriate for me to disclose the personal details of such action.
“The primary care trust also undertook its own investigation into NHS specific issues, which needed scrutiny and in doing so received the full co-operation of the GPs involved in James’ care.”
Mencap: Case highlights need for adult protection legislation
David Congdon, head of campaigns and policy at learning disability charity Mencap, said that agencies were guilty of “collective irresponsibiltiy” and that the case highlighted the need for proper safeguarding legislation for adults.
He added: “Mencap urges the government to start taking the safeguarding of vulnerable adults as seriously as child protection. Until this happens, individuals like James Hughes and his mother Heather will continue to be betrayed by our care system.”
In December 2008 Worcestershire deputy coroner Margaret Barnard concluded that Hughes had died between 15 February and 23 April. She recorded an open verdict but said that there was a “lost opportunity” for social services to investigate more fully.
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