Tuesday 27 March 2012

Abuse of vulnerable adults and "erroneous" press reports

One aspect of Carmarthenshire County Council's reaction to the Public Services Ombudsman's report on its handling of the Delyth Jenkins case deserves a closer look.

As we saw in a previous post (here), the council's leadership successfully ensured that a minimum of publicity was given to the report, and it was slipped past the full council in a way which avoided discussion or awkward questions.

Such discussion as there was in the council meeting on 2 December 2009 lasted no more than a few minutes and consisted of the chief executive apologising for "erroneous press reports":

Arising from minute no. 7 “Report by the Public Service Ombudsman for Wales on Investigation into a complaint against Carmarthenshire County Council”, concern was expressed at the incorrect reports that had appeared in the press which had upset the complainants. The Chief Executive stated that he had contacted the complainants to express regret that the press had published erroneous reports.

So what were these "erroneous" reports, and why did the chief executive feel the need to apologise on behalf of the press?

For reasons which will become obvious, the chief executive was very unlikely to have gone into detail about what these offending press reports were, and it is not possible now to be 100% certain, but a trawl through the press archives gives us a pretty good clue.

The Western Mail, Camarthen Journal and the BBC all reported on the ombudsman's findings. In each case, these were straight, factual summaries of the principal findings of the report. However, another article appeared in the Carmarthen Journal on 19 November 2009 which gave an account of the meeting of the council's Executive Board. You can read it here.

If you put yourself in the shoes of the parents of Sally, the young woman who had been subjected to abuse in the council's day care centre, you too would have been very upset by what you read, because what we get is an account, by the chief executive, of a what they probably imagined was a private visit he made to their home.

This was an extremely sensitive situation, and you would have thought that common sense would dictate that any remarks would have been confined to a brief statement that the visit had taken place and an apology given. Instead, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Sally, the victim of the abuse, was without her knowledge or consent turned into a public relations mascot for the council.

As we know, Sally is a woman with serious learning difficulties, so serious in fact that she was unable to tell her parents that she had been physically abused and bullied by staff at the home. Because the council did not tell her parents about what had been going on for more than a year after Delyth Jenkins had made her first complaint, Sally's parents suspected nothing, and continued to send their daughter to the centre. In the BBC's Taro 9 Sally's mother spoke about the terrible realisation that Sally had continued to attend the centre and suffer abuse while the council knew about it and her parents did not.

Public meetings of the council and its various committees are not recorded, and it is of course strictly prohibited for members of the public and press to record them, other than by making written notes. As with all council meetings, a couple of journalists would have sat in the main body of the chamber and taken shorthand notes of what was said. 

Apart from the journalist's report, the only other published account of what was said is in the form of the minutes of the meeting. As we know, minutes of council meetings are rarely a reliable guide to what was said in meetings, but on this occasion, the chief executive's comments were summarised as follows:

The Chief Executive further advised the Board that he had personally visited the family of the service user in order to express the Authority’s apologies and had been pleased to hear that the “Sally” continued to attend the day centre detailed within the complaint.

Compare that with the Carmarthen Journal report, and it becomes obvious that the remarks quoted by the newspaper were almost certainly accurate, but in the absence of a recording, any dispute is simply the word of the chief executive against the word of the journalist.

The picture painted by the remarks made in the Executive Board meeting is therefore one of a happy young woman who was very keen to get off to the day centre on the day of the chief executive's visit. No harm done then, and all's well that ends well, would seem to be the message, and council leader Meryl Gravell chimed in,

This particular lady still enjoys herself at the centre, and I hope that this is the end of the matter. It is sad it happened, but we can now move on.

But as Sally's mother told  Taro 9, Sally has been affected by what happened, and the physical and mental abuse have sadly left their mark.

As we can see, the "apology" given at the council meeting on 2 December was nothing of the sort.

Five years after the first complaint was made, and after all of the investigations and the ombudsman's damning report, the council was still inflicting pain on Sally and her parents.

Footnote: At the same time as this was happening (the final quarter of 2009), the chief executive was waging a campaign on behalf of the council against the local press, and what he regarded as negative reporting of council stories. Barely concealed threats were made to reduce the council's advertising spend, and the council's propaganda sheet was beefed up.

One final footnote. As this blog has noted on previous occasions, the Council seems to have real problems distinguishing between the singular and plural. Here the impression was given that there were multiple "erroneous" press reports. It seems that there was just one, most likely entirely accurate report.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As usual, bad press is avoided by being economical with the truth. Back in 2008 the Chief Executive complained to the editor of the Western Mail about an editorial critical of the council (a different matter to Delyth), his message to councillors etc was that the reporter who was responsible was 'not known for being friendly...to councils' and he'd persuaded the editor to publish a 'comment' in favour of the council. Agreeing to do this, according to the Chief Executive was 'almost unheard of'.