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Prosecuting Healthcare Practitioners Who Abuse Their Patients

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Before I started acting 12 years ago for people who had been abused by healthcare practitioners, I would have been shocked to hear that healthcare practitioners, people you put all your trust in, could be sexually, emotionally and physically abusive to their patients.  However, as I have come to realise, this happens more than what you may think.

On 9 July 2014 the Doncaster Free Press published a ‘breaking news’ article in respect of former Doncaster GP Andrew Johnson having been convicted and sentenced to imprisonment in the Crown Court in April 2014 for sexually assaulting 9 of his patients between 1979 and 2005.  The press were prevented from reporting the outcome of this trial as another of Mr Johnson’s victims, who was only 14 at the time, came forward years after the abuse had taken place in the 1990s.  Mr Johnson has been sentenced to a total of 11 years and eight months in prison for these crimes. 

Prior to the trial in the Criminal Court, Mr Johnson was reported to and struck off by the General Medical Council, the regulatory body who all doctors must be registered with in order to practice. 

Abuse by healthcare practitioners is not always sexual. James Hinds and Susan Murphy, care assistants at the Solar Centre in Doncaster, were found guilty in May 2013 of mistreating severely disabled patients, who due to their disabilities could not speak up about the abuse, between 2005 and 2007.  In June 2013 Mr Hinds and Ms Murphy were both sentenced to 2 years 9 months imprisonment. 

It has been reported that Mr Johnson’s then 14-year-old victim disclosed the abuse she had suffered after hearing about the Jimmy Savile scandal.  She also found out that Mr Johnson was being prosecuted for offences against his patients when she searched for him on-line.

I find it unsurprising that it took this victim took so long to speak up about the abuse. 

Very complex psychological feelings and emotions are common after being abused.  The victim will often (wrongly) feel that they are to blame for what occurred and they may also feel as if they need to ‘protect’ their abuser, a feeling often encouraged by the abuser, and this frequently prevents victims from speaking out. 
When the abuser is a healthcare practitioner or, for example, a member of the Clergy, there is also an imbalance of power – heavily in favour of the abuser. 

Victims often feel that they will not be believed especially if the person abusing them was assisting them with their mental health needs, for example as their counsellor, psychotherapist, psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker or GP (to name but a few).  Sadly, and in my opinion wrongly, there is still often considered to be a stigma associated with mental health treatment and many of my Clients have told me that their abuser told them that they would not be believed if they spoke out as they were a mental health patient.  But the history of the abusive events tells their own story and patterns of behaviour and ‘grooming’ often run though such events, clearly recognisable to experts on abuse. 

In addition, many of my Clients have also told me that they did not speak out as they feared that it would be detrimental to their care and treatment, and even that their care and treatment would be removed if they did.

These concerns can be added to if the abusive practitioner is well known in their field or in a senior or management position. 

As the examples above illustrate, abuse can be reported to the Police.  The Police are not always able to prosecute due to legal tests and hurdles but they will note complaints which may assist if there are subsequent complaints. 

The abuse can also be reported by way of a complaint to the practitioner’s employer (for example the NHS), professional membership organisation (for example the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy or the UK Council for Psychotherapy) or governing body (for example the General Medical Council for doctors, or the Nursing & Midwifery Council for nurses and midwives).  These complaints can result in professional conduct or disciplinary proceedings. The NHS can also instigate Safeguarding or Serious Untoward Incident proceedings.

Many people go on to take civil legal action against the abusive practitioner or their employers.  This is rarely driven by a desire for money (although compensation is fully deserved) but a desire to feel ‘heard’, and a civil claim, properly handled by a specialist abuse lawyer, can be a step on the victim’s road of recovery.

The Clinic for Boundary Studies (“CfBS”) is the only organisation in the UK working around all aspects of professional boundaries and the prevention of boundary violations.  CfBS’ work includes the provision of specialist client support services which are aimed at supporting members of the public who may have suffered boundary violations.  More information about the CfBS can be found on their website:    http://www.professionalboundaries.org.uk/Home.aspx. Alternatively their telephone number is: 020 3468 4194, and their e-mail address is: info@professionalboundaries.org.uk.

Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any questions on the legal aspects of Professional Abuse.

Victoria Thackstone - hlw Keeble Hawson Solicitors

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