Thirteen care workers, managers and directors have been convicted over the abuse of residents at two care homes for adults with severe learning disabilities.
Residents of the Veilstone and Gatooma care homes in Devon were routinely punished by being held in bare seclusion rooms that had no heating or toilets.
A series of trials heard that residents were held in the rooms, known as the “garden room” or “quiet room”, for hours, and sometimes overnight, as a “culture of abuse” developed during 2010 and 2011.
The homes were run by Atlas Project Team Limited. The trials took place last year but the outcomes can only now be revealed after reporting restrictions were lifted.
Passing sentence, Judge William Hart said: “There is no doubt that Atlas had an impressive reputation. It could offer care to people with severe learning disabilities that others could not.
“At some point the wrong turn was taken which allowed the quiet room and garden rooms to be used.
“It became a way of life – it became the norm, a habit. Rather than care in the community it became lack of care in the community and systematic neglect.
“The residents didn’t like it. The phrase that comes back to me, ‘If you kick off, you get the quiet room’.
“It was used as a form of punishment and they were distressed and in discomfort when left in the room. Eventually they complied but that had no therapeutic value.
“There were many that benefited from the Atlas regime but the way that the rooms became used was not beneficial.
“Those two rooms cast a dark shadow over people’s lives.”
Among those convicted were Jolyon Marshall, 42, a co-director of Atlas, who was jailed for 28 months. Paul Hewitt, 71, the founder of Atlas, was also convicted of a health and safety offence.
An investigation into the abuse was launched after a former resident raised concerns with the Care Quality Commission in July 2011. The homes were later shut down and Atlas went into administration.
Huw Rogers, from the Crown Prosecution Service, said: “The directors and managers at the Atlas care homes created a culture of abuse – unlawfully detaining residents in very poor conditions for long periods of time.
“This case has been ground-breaking in that the directors and managers of the homes and not just the staff that implemented their policies have been held to account.”
Jan Tregelles, chief executive of Mencap, and Vivien Cooper, chief executive of The Challenging Behaviour Foundation, said the evidence that emerged during the trials was “chilling”.
In a joint statement they said: “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.”
Among the victims was a man who had been moved to Veilstone from the Winterbourne View hospital near Bristol, the site of a high profile abuse scandal exposed by the BBC’s Panorama programme in 2011.
In a statement his family said: “Throughout these trials our family has endured the torment of hearing how our beloved son and brother suffered yet again at the hands of people who were paid to care for him.
“[He] is still a prisoner from the abuse he suffered at Veilstone and at Winterbourne View. Instead of being able to enjoy the prime of his life [his] experiences were of abuse and fear, that continues to haunt him today.
“This trial acts as another in a series of reminders that the disregard of people with a learning disability has not disappeared from society – [his] experiences are not alone.”