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Our elderly must not be put at risk

The allegations against the Rostrevor Nursing Home, if true, raise extremely serious questions about the care of the elderly in this country.

That such vulnerable, frail people, many of whom were wards of court, could be allegedly treated in such a cruel manner a mere two-and-a-half miles from our national parliament and seat of government beggars belief.

When the Leas Cross Nursing Home was shut down in 2005 for what the subsequent O'Neill report found was "institutional abuse", we were assured that this would never happen again. The supervision of nursing homes was transferred from the HSE to the Health Information and Quality Authority, whose motto is "safer better care".

But matters haven't worked out quite as expected. If the allegations made by HIQA against Rostrevor are accurate, then Leas Cross was a shining beacon of best practice. Yesterday we learned that, in an affidavit submitted to the District Court last Friday seeking to cancel the nursing home's registration, HIQA alleged that Rostrevor had covered up allegations of serious abuse of patients by some staff members. These allegations included a care assistant allegedly banging a male patient's head against a door jam, the same care assistant allegedly taking a female patient to the bathroom on his own and of a patient being kicked by a staff member while lying on the floor.

Regardless of the truth of these allegations, for anyone with elderly relatives, which is most of us, they are enough to make the flesh creep. It is important to stress that many, perhaps most, of the Rostrevor staff, were not involved in the alleged abuse.

So how could this have happened? How could Rostrevor have slipped through the post-Leas Cross HIQA net? After all it wasn't as if Rostrevor had a previously unblemished record. In 2004 the HSE made a previous, unsuccessful effort to shut the home. As a result of the HSE's efforts Rostrevor was fined €8,000 in 2005 after being found guilty of 10 offences including failures in nursing care, the keeping of medication and the nursing home environment.

According to an Bord Altranais, three nurses who worked at Rostrevor were struck off the Nursing Register for professional misconduct. One was Therese Lipsett, Rostrevor's proprietor. Yet despite this the nursing home was allowed to remain open. More incredible is the fact that Rostrevor apparently received a clean bill of health following a HIQA inspection in 2008.

One would have thought that following the events of 2004-5 HIQA would have been watching Rostrevor like the proverbial hawk. So had the nursing home so raised its game in the immediate aftermath of 2004-5 that it was able to pass the 2008 HIQA inspection with flying colours only for its standards to slip alarmingly once again, or did HIQA fail to spot the signs that all was not well at the nursing home?

Unfortunately the fact that the latest attempt to shut down Rostrevor only came after a number of staff members, rightly appalled at what was happening, turned whistle-blowers, must lead one to the latter conclusion.

Even on the basis of what we already know, the Rostrevor affair has revealed huge gaps and weaknesses in the system of supervising nursing homes. As the law stands, whistle-blowers who expose wrongdoing by their employers have no legal protection.

These failings have exposed the elderly to the unacceptable risk of neglect and abuse. Regardless of the eventual outcome of this particular incident Health Minister James Reilly must move immediately to remedy these dangerous deficiencies.

Irish Independent