15 May 2024

Boy with profound learning disabilities reaches out of court settlement after abuse in residential school

Health and Social Care Editor

A boy with profound learning disabilities has reached an out-of-court settlement after he was abused in a residential school in Bristol.

The St Christopher’s school was run by Aurora, funded by the private equity company Octopus Group, and has not admitted liability.

Channel 4 News has learned that police were not able to go ahead with a prosecution because of a gap in the law that meant those in charge couldn’t be held accountable for what happened.

Jonah Maxwell is at the severe end of the autistic spectrum. He’s nonverbal and has a profound learning disability. He needs round-the-clock care and supervision.

“He communicates with pictures or with a system on an iPad-type device. He can get very anxious and very worried about things,” said Jonah’s mother Annette Maxwell.

‘We will never know the full extent of what happened’

From the ages of ten to 16, he lived at Saint Christopher’s in Bristol, a residential school for children with severe learning disabilities and complex needs. But in 2019, the Maxwells were told that Jonah had been abused while at Saint Christopher’s. The police were called.

“We will probably never know the true and full extent of what happened to Jonah,” Annette said. “We know that he was pushed and manhandled twice on one evening. We also know that over a period of time, he was woken up overnight regularly, every two hours, by a support worker. She said that she didn’t want to change him if he was incontinent during the night. So to prevent that, she was getting him up and forcing him to the toilet. He was sleep deprived.”

A week later, Saint Christopher’s was abruptly closed after Ofsted suspended its registration. The residential school was taken over in 2016 by the Aurora Group, which is funded by the private equity company the Octopus Group. Aurora claims to be the UK’s sixth largest provider of education, care and support services for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities. The local authority paid them £292,000 a year for Jonah’s placement. Now, after several years of legal wrangling, the Maxwells have reached an out-of-court settlement with Aurora over a breach of Jonah’s human rights, but with no admission of guilt.

“There wasn’t any prosecution of the carers,” said Jonah’s father Kevin Maxwell. “One, the gentleman that was seen to push and basically assault Jonah left the country soon afterwards. The person who the police and we believe had woken Jonah up every night, every two hours for 18 months to two years, she denied it.”

Gap in the law

And yet, what we can now reveal is a gaping hole in the law. That means that the management and the directors of Aurora cannot be held accountable for what happened at St Christopher’s. If it had been a hospital setting or a medical clinic, they would have been covered. But it wasn’t. It was a residential school. And that has enormous implications for the thousands of other vulnerable children in similar settings.

The issue is specifically with section 21 of the Criminal Justice and Courts Act.

“I think that the family and in fact other individuals have been severely let down. I don’t think this is what parliament intended. I think this has led, and this is a perfect example, of injustice being done and potential perpetrators slipping through the net,” said Lewis Powers KC from Church Court Chambers.

Avon and Somerset Police said in a statement why they believed it fell outside the act.

“The material we reviewed confirmed that Aurora St Christopher’s was first and foremost a school. It was regulated by Ofsted and not the Care Quality Commission. Whilst staff were able to administer medication, they are unable to prescribe medication and there was not a doctor routinely on site.”

‘Serious harm and abuse’

How much abuse actually went on is still not clear. But Bristol City Council has now confirmed in an email to Channel 4 News that in August 2019, they made a notification of serious harm of a child relating to five or more children at St Christopher’s with allegations of child cruelty by professionals. This was described as serious harm and abuse.

We’ve spoken to a number of families and to former staff who described the culture changing at St Christopher’s when Aurora took over, becoming more toxic. They talk about staff being yelled at, of parents being blamed for being too demanding. They even talk about the food changing, not meeting the dietary requirements of these children

For the sake of their child, this family did not want to be identified.

“We’re here because we want to help in the sense that we feel that people need to listen and the government needs to listen, and they need to see that people who are asset strippers and businessmen and women are coming in and being absolutely brutal. They’re taking vast amounts of money off bankrupt councils, because there’s no other place for them to go and offering things that look good on a list. The reality is that it was appalling,” the family told us.

Aurora said in a statement:

“We remain saddened that the families affected by the circumstances leading to the closure of St Christopher’s continue to feel distressed.
Aurora had stepped in to save St Christopher’s, which was rated inadequate under previous ownership, in response to a parents’ campaign to prevent its proposed closure by a charity that couldn’t carry on running it.

“We regret that despite our multi-million pound investment in improved facilities and staffing, the plan to transform St Christopher’s into a vibrant and positive place to live and learn didn’t succeed.

“We did all that we could to improve the culture and practice at St Christopher’s including appointing a well-regarded and experienced leadership team.

“This team introduced an effective whistleblowing policy that meant a staff member finally felt safe enough to report historic and ongoing concerns about a small number of colleagues.

“The individuals in question were immediately suspended, which is usual practice in good children’s services while an investigation takes place. The concerns were properly reported by the St Christopher’s leadership team to the local authority’s safeguarding team.

“We worked closely with the relevant authorities, including the police, to fully investigate the concerns regarding the suspended employees. After a thorough investigation, police decided to take no further action.

“Many parents wanted us to continue caring for their children during the investigation. However, it became impossible to keep St Christopher’s open during this time and we took the difficult decision to voluntarily close.

“We then did all that we could to support the children, their families, and staff during this challenging time, and we continue to wish everyone well.”

After St Christopher’s was closed, Jonah spent five months at home before another place could be found.

“A big thing of what we want to do is raise awareness of what’s actually going on in the sort of disability health care sector,” said Annette. “Young children and young people like Jonah should not be seen as a money-making commodity. At the end of the day, he was a young child. He’s very vulnerable. He’s very innocent. And we love him. We just want the best for Jonah. And that was not the best for Jonah.”