Former West Lane staff told they were 'being silly' after warning management about patient deaths

The whistleblower's identities have been protected by the use of actors telling their stories. Credit: ITV Tyne Tees

Former West Lane mental health hospital staff said they were told they were "being silly" after warning management there would be patient deaths.

I spoke to three whistleblowers who worked as care staff at the facility on Acklam Road in Middlesbrough, which was run by the Tees Esk and Wear Valleys NHS Foundation Trust (TEWV).

All of them say they raised concerns with management over patient safety, but were ignored.

This was prior to the facility being closed by inspectors in August 2019 after two teenagers died under its care; 17-year-olds Christie Harnett and Nadia Sharif.

On 19 April, the trust was sentenced to a £200,000 fine after pleading guilty to breaching the Health and Social Care Act in relation to the deaths of Christie Harnett and another patient in a different hospital run by the Trust, who has been named Patient X for legal reasons.

The whistleblowers shared their experiences anonymously with me. We've changed their names and their stories have been portrayed by actors.

The whistleblowers told Molly Sharples that working at West Lane in 2019 was “horrific” and “unsafe”.

In January 2019, it was announced to the press that West Lane hospital had made 20 staff suspensions following the use of non-approved techniques for moving patients.

After this, a new management board was appointed.

According to a NICHE report looking into concerns and issues raised relating to the safety and quality of care at West Lane Hospital, published in March 2023, this new management team "came from predominantly adult mental health services (AMHS)".

The report also notes that the care staff team in the hospital "was supplemented from elsewhere in the Trust, including AMHS", as well as the use of agency and bank staff.

Because of this, "there was a feeling that AMHS approaches [to care] became dominant during this time".

Louise shared her experience anonymously, we have changed her name and her story has been portrayed by an actor. Credit: ITV Tyne Tees News


Louise said that working at West Lane prior to the mass staff suspensions was hard but rewarding.

She described the team as a "family" and tells me that rules were strict but for the benefit of the patients - "to keep them safe".

She added: "The rules reflected the risks of each child. It wasn't like a blanket for everybody, you know?"

She told me she still had cards from former patients thanking her for her care and explaining how they understood she enforced the strict rules to keep them safe.

Louise said it was after the mass staff suspensions and new management team came in that she was faced with new challenges.

"It was absolute bedlam," she said.

"They had staff that had never ever worked with children working there, children just running around, absolute madness."

She said rules that were in place were lifted by the new management team and the use of bank and agency staff became more common.

Louise said: "We were told to basically treat them like adults, don't treat them like children anymore. And it was absolutely baffling as to why?

"They were, you know, kids between the ages of 13 and 18."

She said the increased use of adult model care meant that days in the facility had less structure.

She added: "With children, you've got to really engage them because these risky behaviours are so high with children.

"They had nothing to look forward to. They had nothing to fight for in the end, because all the rules were lifted. So it was like, well, why would we need to get better?

"So pretty much, from what I saw, they all gave up."

I asked Louise if she felt like it was a safe enough environment to keep patients safe.

She said: "No, there was no way I could keep any of them safe. Like it was, it was sad.

"That's why I left, I couldn't do it anymore. Not only were their lives on the line, but you know, I've got my career as well.

"I couldn't be a part of it anymore."

Louise began to cry as she explained how leaving her role at the hospital was hard on a personal level as well as professional.

She said: "These were our children, we [saw] them as our kids, we had a lot of love for them, you know what I mean? 

"It was so sad because I absolutely adored them, and to walk out and leave them. 

"Like, I knew it was gonna happen. I said, 'someone's going to die', and they did, they did."

I asked Louise why she was choosing to share her story now, to which she said: "I’ve wanted to speak up for a long time, but you know, the power that these people have, you can't speak."

Louise reflected on the management team who were in charge during her time working at West Lane in 2019, who have never experienced any individual sanctions for the deaths of patients.

She said: "I don't know how they can sleep at night, to think 'you know what? I actually did a good job here.'

"They've never been held accountable. It's absolutely disgusting."

Sam shared her experience anonymously, we have changed her name and her story has been portrayed by an actor. Credit: ITV Tyne Tees


Sam also said there was a big difference in working at West Lane before and after the new management came in.

She said: "When the new team came over, things changed straightaway. 

"Some of the things that shocked me when the new rules came in was seeing the young people hurting themselves and not being able to intervene. There was no structure anymore.

"The young people were allowed to have what we would call contraband, which could be things that they could harm themselves with. It was horrific. It made me anxious. 

"It was dangerous, it was a dangerous place to work because we just couldn't keep them safe."

Sam said there were occasions when bank or agency staff would come in for a shift and not return after going on their lunch breaks.

"They just said they couldn't handle it," she added.

I asked Sam if she felt she was able to keep patients safe. She said: "There was no way. There wasn't enough of us. There were too many restrictions lifted, there was no structure. 

"We were just set up to fail. We couldn't give the kids the care that they needed. We couldn't keep them safe. There wasn't enough of us at times. 

"And you just, you were just waiting, you just knew something bad was going to happen."

I asked if she raised her concerns with management at the time. Sam said she and others did on "several occasions".

She added: "We told management there were going to be deaths, we were told we were being silly."

Sam became emotional as she described how she felt a sense of personal responsibility for the welfare of the patients and would worry about the their safety, even after clocking off.

She said: "I used to come home, not being able to sleep, thinking about the kids.

"I would come home, and then I would be messaging people saying 'is everything ok?'

"You couldn't unwind. I felt I needed to be there, because I would keep them safe."

I asked Sam what she thought needs to happen to ensure these failings never happen again. She said: "Management needs to be held responsible and held accountable.

"It wasn't our failings, it was leadership failings. We were just the ones that were in the firing line."

Pauline shared her experience anonymously, we have changed her name and her story has been portrayed by an actor.


Pauline said the new management team which came in "enrolled an adult model onto a child's ward which was never suitable".

"They would treat them like adults on an adult ward, but they weren't. They were young, vulnerable children and that was someone's child," she said.

"They [agency staff] were allowing the children to have stuff that wasn't in the risk assessments or wasn't allowed."

Pauline remembered a time when a parent came to her with concerns and she felt she was unable to give them reassurance.

She said: "Where usually I would have reassured the parent and say, 'we will do our utmost to keep them safe', on this occasion I couldn't I couldn't say that.

"Because I didn't know when I went home, who was coming on next.

"I couldn't give them that reassurance. And that was so disheartening. It was heartbreaking."

Pauline said she also flagged her concerns to those in charge, adding: "We spoke up, we talked to senior management, we spoke to anyone that would listen."

I asked Pauline what she thought of the widespread media coverage of the trust's failings within West Lane, and she said: "When you see all over the news, that our staff didn't care, the staff just allowed this to happen.

"What doesn't get portrayed is that staff did care greatly and have to live with what happened there.

"But you know that’s nowhere near what families have to live with."

I asked Pauline the reasons for sharing her story, she said: "I want the families of the young people to know that they were cared for greatly.

"It was all them changes and all them management team. To know that not one of the senior management lost their jobs.

"Staff can’t get closure, the families can't get closure and you know, what family is going to be next?"

The Tees Esk and Wear Valleys NHS Foundation Trust did not respond specifically to any of the claims made by the whistleblowers.

However in court on 19 April, a representative from their legal team said that trust is a “very different organisation from when offending took place”.

They added that they are now focussing on listening and acting on the concerns of service users and their families and that significant changes have been made to how serious incidents are reviewed and reported.

In response to the sentencing of the trust, on the 19 April, they said: "We're deeply sorry for the events that led to these tragedies.

"We didn't provide the care these two people deserved, and the guilty pleas reflect that. Of course, that's no consolation for patient X and Christie's loved ones, for which I offer our heartfelt apologies.

"The CQC has acknowledged in our latest inspection that improvements have been made since then.

"However, today is about being accountable and our thoughts are with the families at this incredibly difficult time."

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