Fort England under fire in patient assault case*

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A Fort England patient and their family have laid a charge of assault against the psychiatric hospital’s nursing and security staff. It comes as a confidential source within the institution warns that deteriorating conditions and faltering management at the institution are creating an environment where incidents such as the one alleged are more likely to occur.

The case, opened on 2 May at the Grahamstown Police Station follows allegations of multiple assaults on the patient since their admission in 2014.

The patient’s family submitted a formal complaint to Fort England on 17 April in accordance with the Mental Health Care Act. It included a handwritten statement describing the alleged assaults, as well as a report of the abuse allegations. The family requested that the complaint be given to the patient’s social worker for further action.

The most recent incident of assault that prompted the family’s concern occurred mid-March.

The patient was allegedly placed in a separate room by members of nursing and security staff, stripped naked and beaten until soiling themselves. It is alleged that the patient was left in the separate room until the next day.

The patient told their family member of the abuse confidentially, saying they felt unsafe to speak to any hospital staff or member of management.

The statement submitted to Fort England by the family describes these feelings of fear expressed by the patient. According to the statement, this was to such an extent that the patient was afraid to ask for their cigarettes from the nursing staff.

The handwritten statement was submitted to Fort England on 22 March, shortly after the incident, and was stamped and received by the Labour Relations Officer.

The patient’s family said the patient had experienced severe trauma, anxiety and other health issues as a result of the incidents.

At the time of opening the case with SAPS, the family had yet to receive an official reply from Fort England.

Consequences

A family member described to Grocott’s Mail how they were pulled aside by members of management the end of March and asked whether they had considered the consequences for the staff members implicated in the alleged assault, were they to proceed with the matter.

According to the family, the nursing and security staff who allegedly assaulted the patient “are still working there”.

Since the submission of the formal complaint on 17 April the family is not aware of any further abuse to the patient.

At the time of filing the case, the patient had been granted leave for three days.

“[Patient’s name] doesn’t want to go back, it isn’t [patient’s] will,” the family said.

In response to Grocott’s Mail’s request for comment, Eastern Cape Department of Health Spokesperson Sizwe Kupelo said, “Police will have to investigate the allegations.”

Leadership crisis

A confidential source within Fort England said, “Until the Eastern Cape Department of Health appoints a strong, capable, competent and permanent CEO, or reappoints [Roger] Walsh as CEO, to address these issues, I predict more alleged incidents of [this]nature. We require urgent intervention, even-handedness, and strong leadership from ECDOH Head Office, rather than the mediocrity and incompetence that has been on display thus far.”

Walsh, who lives in Grahamstown, was two years ago transferred to another position in the Department of Health, based in Bhisho, following a threat by unions to make Fort England Hospital ungovernable unless he was immediately removed. His transfer concluded a period of disruption including a multi-union strike during which staff were forcibly removed from wards.

Walsh has contested his transfer. He says in his founding affidavit drawn up for the Labour Court that it was unlawful for the unions to demand his summary dismissal as CEO of Fort England without a fair hearing, and that it was unlawful for the Superintendent-General and MEC for Health to accede to the demand. The latter are named as first and second respondents.

In addition, Walsh asserts that the transfer “was taken for reasons and in circumstances which threatened the rights of patients at Fort England Hospital to safe and dignified health care services…”.

Walsh’s attorney Justin Powers of Neville Borman & Botha Attorneys said attempts to finalise the matter through formal mediation before proceeding further in the Labour Court had been unsuccessful.

“The application has become opposed. The Department has filed a Review Record. The Department’s Answering Affidavit is due within the week,” Powers said after the 15 February mediation had failed.

This week, he said Walsh is filing a reply to the Department’s Answering Affidavit and the Department had applied for a date for the matter to be be placed on the opposed court roll for hearing.

Corrective measures

Fort England’s Acting CEO, Mbuyi Zonke, was approached for comment regarding the way patient and family complaints are handled.

“Our patients log their complaints in writing and put these in the complaints box (locked) that is opened by the designated officials every Monday morning. Within a week the patient receives written acknowledgement and is also advised about [a]process that will be followed. After the matter has been investigated and corrective measures put in place, the patient is informed of the outcome.”

“When a family member of [a]patient has a complaint, s/he contacts [the]Complaints Manager and discusses the complaint. The Complaints Manager acknowledges the complaint, then informs the complainant on progress, or corrective measures are put in place.”

Zonke said patients and families complain about issues such as food, patient care and assault.

He said Fort England works to improve and ensure the safety of staff and patients by having security personnel in each ward, as well as making sure patients are briefed each morning about their rights and other information.

Grocott’s Mail subsequently asked Zonke about the alleged assault reported on in this article but had not received a reply at the time of publication.

Grocott’s Mail will continue to report on further developments.

  • Zonke’s comment on the assault case was received 14 May, and reflected in publication 18 May.
  • Additional reporting by Sue Maclennan

*This story has been re-edited as of 3 June 2018, the original story was published online on 6 May 2018. 

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