Police slammed for handling of search for vulnerable missing man

THE BODY of a young man may have lay undiscovered for four days after a bungled police search failed to check the hospital where he’d last been seen.

Jason Hearn’s body was found in a disused bathroom at Watford General Hospital on Wednesday, May 6, 2009, four days after he walked out of the acute assessment unit (AAU) on May 2 in a fragile state.

But CCTV footage revealed that 22-year-old Jason from Branch Road, Park Street, returned to the unit just minutes after walking out, regaining access to the secure unit by following a member of staff through its doors.

The last footage captured of Jason is minutes later when he is seen making his way to the third level, where his body was found in a disused shower room, and it is believed he took his life in the late hours of that night.

At last week’s inquest, Herts Coroner, Ed Thomas, said comprehensive actions to find Jason after he was reported missing by his family had not been undertaken by the police, which was made apparent in an additional investigation by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC).

Flaws in communication between medical staff and the police, as well as a “disjointed and disorganised” response to finding Jason were exposed during the inquest but Mr Thomas said he thought the tragic outcome would not have been very different even if those breakdowns had not occurred.

Various members of medical staff and officials from the NHS gave evidence alongside officers from Herts Police detailing their role in the last hours of Jason’s life.

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The normally happy young man had been admitted to Watford’s A&E department in Saturday, May 2, after collapsing at his mum’s home in Abbots Langley.

The keen photographer had reportedly been feeling a little low in the days leading up his collapse but he’d tried to remain upbeat. After his collapse, Jason became unresponsive and appeared to be in a trance which neither his mother nor the paramedics could bring him out of.

At the hospital, Jason appeared agitated and anxious and at one point became so distressed that he leapt from his bed during an assessment and ran out of the hospital while still attached to medical equipment.

Sister Samantha Rowley pursued Jason and found him running in and out of the road. Concerned for his welfare she contacted the police who located Jason and detained him under Section 136 which gives police the power to remove a mentally ill person in need of immediate care or control from a public place and detain them at a safe place for up to 72 hours.

They returned Jason to the hospital but the court heard how the process which should have been set in motion once someone was detained under Section 136 stalled at the police control room and never reached the hospital.

An authorised psychiatrist and social worker were therefore not called and the police were dismissed. Jason, once calmer, was moved to a regular ward while an assessment was made to rule out any organic issues, such as a viral infection or a form of epilepsy, which could have triggered his earlier out-of-character behaviour.

Speaking at the inquest, consultant physician Dr Chaudhary, who last assessed Jason, said that had he known of the Section 136 he would have requested a psychological opinion on Jason’s condition more immediately.

At around 9pm that night, Jason walked out of the ward and told a staff nurse he no longer wished to remain at the hospital and would go home. The hospital reported his departure to the police and when Jason failed to appear at home, he was reported missing by his parents.

The subsequent search, which became the subject of both a police internal investigation and an IPCC investigation, failed to properly assess Jason’s immediate risk. The police officer who completed the initial missing person’s form was unaware of the previous incident with the police and assessed Jason as a low risk.

That was later upgraded but a picture of Jason was not uploaded to the missing persons system until May 5 and the search focused on St Albans rather than Watford. The hospital was never searched and Jason’s body was found by a nurse in the out-of-order shower room. The door had been locked from the inside.

Detective Inspector Sales from the Harm Reduction Unit, which is responsible for missing persons, told the court that significant changes had been made following the investigations.

The cause of Jason’s death was asphyxia but Mr Thomas recorded that Jason had killed himself while the state of his mind was unbalanced.

He said: “I feel that Jason’s mind was unbalanced when this happened. It’s difficult for me to say whether he was suffering from a mental disorder. I can’t say because he hadn’t had a full psychiatric review.

“There’s the possibility that there may have been some viral or organic reason but whatever it was, his mind was unbalanced. It needed to be explored.

Karen Hearn, Jason’s mother, said she hoped it was understood how extraordinary and out of the blue her son’s behaviour had been that day. She said: “Jason was a clean-living good boy. This was a very bizarre turn of events and he was very scared.”

Mrs Hearn said she had been encouraged by the changes the police had since made to the way they dealt with cases like that of her son. She said: “I know they won’t bring back my son, but it may prevent what happened to my son happening to others.”

She added: “Throughout the whole process, the police have been wonderful and kept me up to date with all events. They invited me to the disciplinary hearings and they’ve always communicated with me. But I’ve never heard a single thing from the NHS trust – no apology or even condolences. Where’s the accountability there? He was there for four days.”

A spokesperson for West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS Trust said: “The Trust wishes to offer its sincerest condolences to the Hearn family for their sad loss.

“The Trust has reviewed the circumstances of this incident and has improved the security arrangements in the Acute Admissions Unit at Watford General Hospital. Referral arrangements with Hertfordshire Partnership Trust have also been strengthened.”