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The Friends of Owenacurra group raising awareness at the Midleton Farmer's Market.
Mental Health Commission

Mental Health Commission unhappy it can't 'vindicate rights' of Owenacurra residents as it would like to

The commission refused to state their stance on the closure when questioned by multiple TDs.

The senior leadership team of the Mental Health Commission have claimed that they have been “deliberately quiet” on the HSE’s controversial decision to close the Owenacurra residential mental health centre in East Cork as they are in the process of taking regulatory action against the service.

MHC Chief Executive John Farrelly said, “We are not happy that we are not able to vindicate [the resident’s] rights in the way we want to, we are not happy that we are not able to account in the way we want to, but we have to tactically figure out what the best way to do that is, it is very very hard.”

The regulatory body oversees in-patient mental health centres in Ireland. Appearing before the Disability Matters Committee today its leadership refused to speak out on the closure of the 24-hour mental health centre in Midleton, which once housed 19 residents and now houses six, with those who left having been moved into nursing homes, shared rooms, and outside of the local community in some cases.

Friends of Owenacurra is a group made up of the families’ of residents and their supporters, who say that the closure is happening against their will and that the process has been traumatising for those living at the centre since it was announced over a year ago.

Mary Hurley’s sister Anna, 61, is a fulltime resident at the Owenacurra centre in Midleton, where she has lived for the last 25 years.

Having dealt with long-term mental health issues, diabetes, and cancer in her time at Owenacurra, Anna has achieved a lot since she settled into the Midleton community, including completing an educational course and joining a local craft’s group in the town. 

Hurley says that the news of Owenacurra’s imminent closure in October last year turned both Anna’s life and her own life upside down. She says the process of trying to engage with the HSE and regulatory bodies to appeal against the decision has been one of “death by a thousand cuts.”

The Cobh woman said she was dismayed by the attitude of the MHC representatives at the committee meeting today, which she felt was “detached, unfeeling, and focused on bureaucracy.”

“Why is the commission silent? Why won’t they tell us what kind of regulatory action they are taking if they are? It is torture for us to not know whether to hope that something might be done,” Hurley stated.

She said that the process of trying to find somewhere suitable for Anna to live, who is one of just six remaining residents, has been exhausting.

“It has been devastating for Anna to have to go and look at accommodation outside of our community. We have visited St Catherine’s Ward, and we went through a whole rigmarole of looking at a BnB in the city that was used for emergency accommodation during the pandemic, only to find out that it was actually only being leased short-term, and she’d have to move again in 2023. If we had known that, we never would have brought her,” Hurley said.

Hurley said that trying to fight the closure has become a second job for her.

“I have so many files on my laptop that I have had to buy more storage space. I just hope that by trying to hold regulatory bodies to account we can try and at least ensure that our relatives move into appropriate accommodation. We have to show people that we are still here, that we are still worried,” she stated.

Back in 2021 the MHC wrote to Cork Kerry Community Healthcare Services stating that they were “deeply concerned about the welfare of the residents who are affected by the imminent closure” of the centre and requested that they be provided with details of how residents are being “respected” in relation to their transfer to other accommodation. 

Last month six family members of residents wrote to the Joint Committee on Health to state their concern about, in their view, “the MHC’s evasion of scrutiny of their oversight of the closure.” 

“The overall impression that we as families have is that key authorities are detaching themselves from their responsibilities towards the very vulnerable group of people at the centre,” the group stated, as they did not believe that the HSE was demonstrating to the MHC that each new placement offered to residents met their needs. 

TD Pat Buckley, who is local to the area, branded the closure “cruelty to human beings,” at the committee meeting and said that the commission had “failed” in its responsibility to look out for the upkeep of Owenacurra. 

Buckley urged the commission to take the HSE to court over the “lack of investment” in the building, which he claimed could have prevented its closure.

“I have family members crying down the phone to me, the distress this has caused, I could go on and on,” he stated, before proceeding to question the commission on whether they are being “put under pressure for exposing the HSE”, which they denied.

Buckley said that the HSE has cited an MHC report that put forth that Owenacurra was not fit for purpose as the reasoning behind their closure order, and he urged the MHC to take action to correct the record on this, insisting that the regulatory body was being used as a “scapegoat”.

MHC Chief Executive John Farrelly told multiple TD’s that he would not comment on individual centres as it could prejudice regulatory actions that may be taken, and stated that the closure of Owenacurra was not what he was invited to discussed.

When TD Neasa Hourigan told Farrelly: “You cannot come to a committee and say there is something regulatory going on but we aren’t going to talk about it, you have to give evidence,” he stated that he wasn’t in a court of law, and asked Hourigan where she thought she was.

TD Holly Cairns accused the MHC of standing over the transfer of the Owenacurra residents to inferior accommodation.

“Do you feel that given you have stood over the transfer of the residents to inferior ward-based settings, cutting them off from their communities, and you have said nothing when that isn’t the stance you have taken on other settings, that this has called into question your commission’s oversight of these mental health settings?” she asked.

She further stated that the families’ of residents were “distraught” over comments the commission issued to the Irish Examiner two weeks ago in which they stated that appropriate safeguards were in place to uphold the rights of residents. 

Cairns claimed that the commission has been “inconsistent” by refusing to discuss the situation with the families on different occasions, but giving quotes to the press and speaking on the radio. 

Farrelly said “you have your views, I don’t agree with your views,” and also insisted that he hadn’t come to the committee to discuss Owenacurra.

The commission has an act it needs to apply, which needs to be improved, he said. 

The MHC representatives broadly acknowledged that the long-term mental health facilities in Cork are poorer than the rest of the country, and suggested the need for a specific plan for the county to tackle this.

The MHC’s Director of Regulation Gary Kiernan said that TD Sean Canney had made a good suggestion when he proposed that the HSE should pause serving closure orders on centres before having community places ready.

Local councillor Liam Quade, who has campaigned on behalf of the families extensively, said: “The Mental Health Commission is aware its oversight of the closure will not stand up to sustained questioning” and that they therefore used “unclear legal arguments to avoid scrutiny.” 

The HSE gave a statement saying that the decision to close Owenacurra was “very difficult but unfortunately necessary”, and that it is not possible for them to refurbish the building. 

They further stated that their team at Owenacurra continues to meet with the remaining residents and their families to discuss future placements. 

The HSE said that their plan for residential services in East Cork will ultimately deliver a “much better” service, including a 10-bed rehabilitative residential unit in Midleton. 

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