Hamilton mental health facility criticised by Chief Ombudsman for overcrowding, using physical restraints

The Henry Rongomau Bennett Centre in Hamilton.
The Henry Rongomau Bennett Centre in Hamilton. Photo credit: Google Maps

The Chief Ombudsman has criticised overcrowding, the use of seclusion and physical restraints at a Waikato DHB mental health facility after it released a damning report. 

Four reports on the Henry Rongomau Bennett Centre in Hamilton were tabled in Parliament following unannounced inspections in September 2019.

The inspections focussed on Wards 34, 35, 36, and the Awhi-rua, Puna Maatai and Puna Poipoi wards. These provide a range of acute, forensic and rehabilitative mental health services for 88 adults from across the Waikato, Lakes, Taranaki and Bay of Plenty regions.

Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier says there is an "urgent need" to deal with the issues raised in his reports.

"The treatment and conditions of service users in three out of the four wards I inspected was degrading and the result of overcrowding," he says.

"It breached Article 16 of the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment."

Wards 34, 35 and 36 were at 130 percent capacity when Boshier visited, he says, and he called the current situation "untenable".

"Inappropriate placements of patients, high use of seclusion and restraint, lack of privacy, blanket restrictions, compromised care, and limited opportunity for recovery are indicators of a facility in crisis."

There had been a significant increase in the use of seclusion in Puna Maatai Forensic Inpatient Wards over recent years, particularly for Māori patients, Boshier says.

Discrepancies were found in the collection and reporting of seclusion and restraint data, training on the use of mechanical restraints didn't appear to comply with policy, and the relevant restraint policies were out of date.

Boshier says the ward shouldn't treat mechanical restraint as "normal practice".

Evidence was also found in Puna Awhi-rua that a person had been put into seclusion for 16 weeks after they assaulted a staff member. But the records didn't support the prolonged seclusion period and Boshier classed it as "degrading treatment".

Concerns were also raised about a practice called "sleepovers", where people were transferred from one ward to another to relieve pressure on staffing or space.

Inspectors say they saw sleepovers in wards for "days at a time" because acute wards were too full. Communal areas, day rooms and offices were being used as bedrooms.

"Installing curtains and partial walls in the shared bedrooms of Wards 34, 35, and 36, did not provide enough privacy, and patients also reported not feeling safe," Boshier says.

Staff burnout in Puna Maatai was also raised due to overcrowding, a lack of resources, and the high and complex needs of patients from the courts and prisons.

While there are reportedly plans from the Henry Rongomau Bennett Centre to address overcrowding and lower the use of seclusion and restraints, Boshier says he's had to "repeat recommendations" during earlier inspections.

Most wards were clean and tidy, however, the Puna Poipoi wasn't fit-for-purpose. There weren't enough showers and toilets, and bedrooms had no ventilation, inadequate storage and were small.

"While I am pleased to hear that the DHB is taking steps to address a number of identified issues, my role is to report on the conditions and treatment for people who are being detained, as they were at the time of the inspection," Boshier says.

This is the first time Boshier has released his reports into the conditions of treatment of people held in public health and disability facilities.