Mother-of-four Deborah Howard, 48, was found guilty after lying to police about the suicide of a patient in her care
A former NHS healthcare assistance was sacked in disgrace and handed a criminal record after lying to police about the suicide of a patient on her hospital ward.
Mother-of-four Deborah Howard, 48, says Stephanie Mullineux was left lying face-down on the floor of the psychiatric ward at Leigh Infirmary in Greater Manchester.
When police investigated the tragedy on behalf of a coroner, Howard said in a statement that nurses gave immediate treatment to Miss Mullineux.
But she says the suicidal 23-year-old was actually left until another patient raised the alarm – after Howard was told by a staff nurse to continue her normal duties.
Howard kept up the pretence for almost a year until finally telling her manager she had been lying.
She said she was ‘concerned Stephanie’s mother should know the true account of what happened at the time her daughter died.’
At Bolton Crown Court, Howard, of Wigan, admitted perverting the course of justice and was sentenced to a 12-month community order.
She will complete 200 hours unpaid work.
On February 8, 2016, Howard used a pass key to get into the toilet after Miss Mullineux, who was supposed to be regularly checked on, locked herself inside.
She was found collapsed and unconscious after hanging herself, but Howard says a staff nurse told her to continue with her normal duties and she left Miss Mullineux.
It was only when another patient went in to the toilet and raised the alarm that Miss Mullineux, from Liverpool, received medical attention, Howard says.
The patient was taken to Royal Albert Edward Infirmary in Wigan on February 8, 2016, where doctors later turned off her life support machine.
Matthew Corbett-Jones, prosecuting, said: ‘In a statement prepared for the coroner the defendant explained that following the discovery of Stephanie, a nurse had arrived and provided treatment which had been performed until paramedics arrived.
Howard says Stephanie Mullineux (pictured) was actually left until another patient raised the alarm – after Howard was told by a staff nurse to continue her normal duties
‘However in January 2017 during a meeting with the then ward manager she explained she had concerns about the forthcoming inquest because her statement was inaccurate and misleading.
‘She expressed herself as being concerned about Stephanie’s parents, knowing the truth about the circumstances of Stephanie’s death and felt unable to maintain her account in front of a coroner.
‘She indicated that following the initial discovery of Stephanie in the toilet, at the instruction of a staff nurse, Deborah had left for a period of time during which a patient on the ward had gone to the toilet where Stephanie had been left and raised the alarm.
‘It was only after this that staff returned to Stephanie and treatment was commenced.’
Four of Howard’s former nursing colleagues stood trial at an earlier hearing. They were accused of lying during the inquiry into Miss Mullineux’s death.
Staff nurse Laura Taylor, 27, acting ward manager Lesley Osbaldestin, 43, acting deputy ward manager Bethany Clare, 29, and 59-year-old healthcare assistant Maria Anderson were accused of providing false statements about Miss Mullineux’s death.
But each were cleared of perverting justice on the orders of the judge after it was claimed Howard had been motivated by revenge to testify against them.
They had implicated her in a 2015 disciplinary matter after which she was said to have told colleagues: ‘Karma will come back to bite them.’
During a meeting with the ward manager Howard claimed she had been ‘losing sleep’ over Miss Mullineux’s death and said she and her colleagues had been lying.
Howard, 48, says Stephanie Mullineux was left lying face-down on the floor of the psychiatric ward at Leigh Infirmary in Greater Manchester (pictured)
She said she and another healthcare assistant were told by a nurse to return to their normal duties after finding Miss Mullineux.
In mitigation for Howard, who currently works in a warehouse, defence counsel Patrick Williamson said: ‘She has lost her job and the profession she loves as a result of this.
‘Her dismissal has put her and her family at financial risk and they are perilously close to losing their house.
‘She now suffers from depression and is on medication. This whole process has weighed very heavily upon her.’
Howard had previously escaped with a written warning for negligence after a patient with Crohn’s Disease and suspected Hepatitis B and C was left sitting in her own urine and faeces in cold weather while the windows were left open.
She had also been accused of abusing a colleague by comparing her to the singer Barry Manilow.
Sentencing Judge Richard Gioserano told her: ‘Stephanie had significant mental health difficulties and was a threat to herself and you had a duty of care to her.
‘It will be distressing for her family to think of her being left like that – but all that should have been done for her was eventually done and she could not be saved.
‘You’re are not being sentenced over a breach in her care but you did, in my judgement, owe her and her family and the coroner a duty to tell the truth.
‘I am prepared to accept that there was a degree of pressure applied to you and the decision to leave her unattended was not your initial decision or idea.
‘But you should have been prepared to tell the truth no matter the consequences. You owed the truth to Stephanie, to her family and eventually to the coroner.
‘You should not put your own interests ahead of the truth however you did come forward eventually and exposed a lie which could have remained hidden.
At Bolton Crown Court (pictured), Howard, of Wigan, admitted perverting the course of justice and was sentenced to a 12-month community order
‘You could have remained silent and got away with it and I accept your remorse is genuine.
‘Whilst there was of course the tragic death of someone, the criminal conduct here lies not in that day but in what you subsequently did in lying.
‘But you had the courage to come forward and eventually tell the truth.’
The four cleared nursing staff are due to face a professional standards investigation. An inquest is also expected to be held into Miss Mullineux’s death.
North West Boroughs Healthcare NHS Trust, which runs the mental health services at Leigh Infirmary, said that a ‘full internal investigation’ was underway to establish what happened in the lead up to the tragedy.
Gail Briers, chief nurse and deputy chief executive, which runs the mental health services at Leigh Infirmary, said: ‘I would like to offer my sincere condolences to Stephanie’s family for their loss.
‘I appreciate it must be incredibly difficult to sit through a court case on top of losing someone you love.
‘Having referred the case to the police as soon as the allegations were made, we have been unable to carry out a full internal investigation while the justice system was in progress.
‘Now the court process has concluded, we will be working with Stephanie’s family to help answer their questions about her death.’
For confidential support call the Samaritans on 116123 or visit a local Samaritans branch, see www.samaritans.org for details.