In 2013 Connor Sparrowhawk (with sister Rosie) drowned in a bath alone in a National Health Services assessment and treatment unit in Oxfordshire, England. The 18-year-old had autism, epilepsy and intellectual disability (referred to as learning disability in the UK). The NHS trust that ran the unit initially attributed his death to natural causes—but his parents called for an independent investigation that found his death preventable. Twenty months later, Connor’s mother Sara Ryan, a senior researcher and autism specialist at Oxford University, is still seeking justice for her son.
BLOOM: Tell me about Connor.
Sara Ryan: He was very quirky and quite eccentric. He had an enormously brilliant sense of humour. He loved transport—buses and coaches. He had a bit of an encyclopedic knowledge of history. He was very good with facts and figures and loved the legal system and the police. But he couldn’t leave the house on his own because he had no road sense and he couldn’t count to ten.
BLOOM: When did he go to the unit called Slade House?
Sara Ryan: He went to secondary school from 11 till he turned 18 and he was a delight really. Then when he turned 18, almost overnight, he got really anxious and very unlike himself. He was difficult to engage with, had lots of dark thoughts, and was in and out of school because he was aggressive. He began bashing his head against the wall and I was worried he was going to hurt himself or someone else. The night we admitted him he wanted to go home and they had to restrain him on the floor with four people face down and section him. In all his life with us, we’d never laid a finger on him.
BLOOM: You had concerns after he went in, specifically about him having seizures there?
Sara Ryan: He was part of a happy family and the minute he went into the unit, because he was 18, they treated him as an adult. We had to phone up to get permission from him to visit, which was very odd. They didn’t engage us at all and changed his medication. I visited and could tell he’d had a seizure because he’d bit his tongue and was very disoriented. They disputed that.
BLOOM: What happened the day of his death?
Sara Ryan: I got a call that he was unconscious and on the way to the hospital in an ambulance. When I got there the consultant said straight away that he was ventilated but there was nothing they could do. They switched off the machine while I was there. Two weeks later the NHS trust published in its board minutes that a ‘service user’ had died of natural causes.
BLOOM: At the time of his death, Connor had been in the unit for 107 days but hadn’t been assessed or treated. What were they doing?
Sara Ryan: He was there for 107 days and the psychiatrist saw him three times. The psychologist filled in some questionnaires, but they didn’t come to anything. They said they were going to do social stories with him, but they never did that. He was a school boy and they should have been taking him to school. But they gave him choices, so he’d say no and stay in his room and watch DVDs.
BLOOM: How did you get an independent investigation into his death?
Sara Ryan: Before he went into the unit I’d been blogging about our family's life with Connor. It was about all the amusing things he did. Lots of people subscribed to it and became very fond of him. When I posted one line on the day he died it went viral. And when we found out the trust was saying he died of natural causes—and was going to do an internal investigation that clearly wasn’t going to find out anything—we made a lot of noise online and eventually they capitulated.
BLOOM: What did the independent investigation find?
Sara Ryan: That it was a preventable death. The staff had the knowledge. They knew he was epileptic and I’d told them he was having seizures in there and was sensitive to medication change. They hadn’t properly assessed his epilepsy and he was left unsupervised in the bath. Twenty months later we’re still waiting for an inquest and the police are still investigating.
BLOOM: I understand the unit was later closed?
Sara Ryan: Nothing happened after Connor died and we contacted the Care Quality Commission. They were about to do an inspection there. They were so shocked by what they saw that they failed the unit on all 10 quality and safety standards and the trust decided to shut the place down. There was no battery in the defibrillator. It was dirty and there was no therapeutic environment.
BLOOM: What accountability do you want from the NHS trust?
Sara Ryan: We want the staff to be disciplined, as appropriate, and a corporate manslaughter charge brought against the trust. We want meaningful involvement at the inquest, which is provisionally set for Oct. 5. We also feel that the commissioners who were commissioning the service—which cost about $1,000 a day—have some role to play. The commissioners spend money on services that you wouldn’t let your dog stay at.
The mortality rates of people with learning disabilities in the UK are shockingly high.* Because the trust said Connor’s death was ‘natural causes’ we were concerned that learning disabled people might die regularly in hospitals and units and their deaths wouldn’t be properly investigated.
Through our campaign we had a meeting with the chief executive officer of NHS England and he agreed to commission a review into deaths since 2011 of people with learning disabilities and mental health issues in the care of the trust.
We want the law changed so that families don’t have to pay for legal representation at the inquest and we believe there should be an independent investigation if someone with a learning disability dies in a hospital or other secure setting.
BLOOM: In a report you produced, you wrote about the lack of humanity in how your family has been treated.
Sara Ryan: I think how they treated Connor was extended to us after he died. They stripped away any sense of him being part of a family and treated him as an object. Once he died they didn’t demonstrate any empathy or compassion or understanding for the pain they caused us and for all kinds of delays and obstructions and deceit really. It’s made what was such a horrific and unimaginably awful situation so much worse. For example, they had the trust’s barrister sit in at a pre-inquest review and try to argue that drowning is a natural cause of death.
BLOOM: What will your legal costs be?
Sara Ryan: Families in the UK don’t get any legal help for inquests and it will cost us almost $50,000. The NHS trust draws on public funds to arm itself with very good legal representation. We were able to raise the money we need through our social media campaign and selling postcards and other fundraising efforts, which is quite remarkable.
BLOOM: In your report you say ‘The ultimate barrier appears to be that learning disabled people are seen as less than human.’
Sara Ryan: Generally, in the way our social life is organized, our kids tend to go to special schools and leisure activities aren’t accessible, so people don’t come into contact that much with people with learning disabilities. The chance of having a job is low, so there isn’t a big community presence. When I started blogging about Connor I made him human in a way that he hadn’t been seen outside of his family and school. Even my colleagues started to chat with me about him. After the weekend they’d say ‘it was hilarious that Connor did this or that.’ They began to see that he was a quirky, funny young man. Ultimately we need to bring the human back so people can appreciate these kids as individuals like anyone else, who just have their own ways of doing and saying things.
BLOOM: You’d like to see more money allocated to community supports?
Sara Ryan: Assessment and treatment units like the one Connor was in have complicated costing arrangements and the money doesn’t tend to follow the person from the unit back to the community. Often the local authority has to find the cost of the support package. You might be able to stay in a place that costs $1,000 a day (indefinitely sometimes, a National Audit Report published last week found the average stay for someone in an assessment and treatment unit is 17 years), but when you come out the local authority hasn’t got the funding because of cuts to welfare costs. In addition, no one seems to know what good care looks like.
*A 2013 inquiry into the deaths of 247 adults and children with intellectual disability in England and Wales found women with intellectual disability died 20 years earlier on average than the general population and men with developmental disability died 13 years earlier. Over a third of the deaths could have been prevented with good health care.
Please see a talk Sara Ryan gave at a patient experience conference at the University of Oxford: How to hear voices that are seldom heard