Unescorted Leave

Risk Assessment MatrixA news article this weekend gives rise to a common set of questions around what we can broadly call “risk assessment” that you often hear debated in police stations, usually just after officers have been despatched to take a report of a missing patient.  On Saturday afternoon, a convicted murderer Daniel ROSENTHAL absented himself from hospital whilst he was on an unsupervised walk around the gardens of Tatchbury Mount Hospital, in Hampshire.  He was found on Sunday morning in Southampton and returned to the hospital.

Hampshire Police were immediately notified of Mr ROSENTHAL’s absence and commenced a “High Risk” missing person’s enquiry, including Press Releases suggesting that the public should not approach the man, but ring 999, etc..  Without knowing the details, we could see from the way in which the media was released that there was a significant concern.

Many members of the public commenting on social media and I’m sure many others were asking, “If he was such a risk that no-one should approach him, why was he unsupervised and fully at liberty to leave?”

Most missing patients are not murderers! – in fact, most are not people who have been involved in the criminal justice system at all.  But police officers see this sort of thing frequently:  patients granted leave of absence from hospital who fail to return and the hospital’s estimation of risk invites the question “so why grant leave?!”


Most police and NHS organisations for the purposes of AWOL patients agree on a low, medium or high categorisation of patients.  High risk usually means life could be at risk, whether this is a risk of suicide or homicide or both; medium risks usually cover patients who will become unwell if they don’t take medication, if they take drugs or alcohol or there is potential for them to self-harm.  Low risk patients are usually not thought likely to present a risk of harm to themselves or others but may be vulnerable for a range of reasons around medication or their current cognitive or emotional state, etc., etc..

Firstly, can we agree? – most patients detained under the MHA, even including some who committed (serious) offences en route to their detention in hospital, are not going to spend the rest of their natural lives detained in hospital.  If we do agree about this, then we have to accept that there will be decisions about treatment are care which will involve taking risks around the granting of leave and whether or not leave will be supervised or unsupervised, whether it will be tightly controlled, subject to conditions or more loosely managed.  If we accept that decisions will be taken about the granting of some leave, do we accept that leave will gradually be subject to fewer restrictions and potentially granted for longer periods?  Can we agree, especially as we are talking about patients, not prisoners, that this is a necessary part of recovery and rehabilitation.


Of course I know that most people get this, at least in theory.  In practice we have heard examples of leave being granted in circumstances where risks were insufficiently understood and where questions have been rightly asked:

I always think of the decision in the case of John BARRETT who was given a restricted hospital order in 2002 after committing several assaults in London.  Having been conditionally discharged from hospital in 2003 – after a due process of recovery which involved the granting of leave – he again became unwell and was re-admitted.  He was granted leave from hospital by a doctor on 01st September 2004, without that doctor actually having assessed or even seen him and without understanding his risk background.  He murdered Denis FINNEGAN in Richmond Park on 02nd September.

But this is not an argument against ever granting leave for patients who may fail to return or who have risk histories.  It is an argument for a public understanding of the benefits to us all of patients recovering sufficiently to live independent, valuable lives outside the confines of hospitals.  Bear in mind that the re-offending rate for patients who were subject to restricted hospital orders is over 5%, compared to a prison re-offending rate of over 50%.  So it is an argument for better risk assessment, better training and better scrutiny.  I know, I know … we’ve heard this all before because when reviews are published into the treatment and care of people like John BARRETT, we read with shock and amazement that certain basic things weren’t done.  Who grants leave to a patient previously deemed to pose “a serious risk of harm to the public” without at least examining them?!  Yes, we wearily and hopeless read promises that “lessons have been learned” in order that “such things could never happen again.”


The one thing I notice when hearing officers talk about MHA leave which has broken down: it is sometimes similar in tone to the conversations we hear about criminals who were granted bail with conditions and broke them.  But patients are not prisoners:  leave is usually about recovery and rehabilitation, even if the route to admission was via the criminal courts.  Where leave is granted to a patient and it fails, does this mean leave should never been tried again?  The reality is that it should be, although with due regard to understanding the reasons why it broke down originally and in the face of the risks being understood and mitigated.  But if we agree that our model of mental health care is rightly about a community model of care, then we are going to have to understand and accept that MHA leave will fail.  What we can be robust about, is understanding that when it does fail, we need to learn the lessons as to why and build that into future decision-making; and we need to understand that if it does fail, the recovery of AWOL patients is not (just) a matter for the police!

Even accepting that Mr ROSENTHAL was a convicted criminal, convicted over thirty years ago, he had assumed quasi-patient status by the prison service transferring him under s47/49 of the Mental Health Act to hospital.  He was no longer detained in a high or even medium secure unit: Tatchbury Mount Hospital is a low-secure unit so it may be inferred that his care plan was aiming for discharge and that the Responsible Clinician was satisfied that security risks were of an order to grant unsupervised leave.  Does this mean if leave failed, by him absconding from the grounds that he is high risk? – yes.

Risk assessment is (able to be conceived as being) based upon the probability versus the impact of threats:  by any standards, a convicted murderer who has absconded is going to be high risk, irrespective of whether he was acutely unwell and experiencing psychosis having recently been admitted; or whether he was sufficiently stable to be granted unsupervised leave and is looking toward being conditionally discharged from hospital.

Most murderers do not live out their lives in prison or hospital and so we need to grasp the reality that professionals employed on our behalf who have to take these tough decisions may from time to time get it wrong; but they may make decisions which are perfectly balanced and fair which still lead to a failure in the purpose and outcome.

IMG_0053IMG_0052Winner of the President’s Medal from
the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

Winner of the Mind Digital Media Award.


10 thoughts on “Unescorted Leave

  1. If the mental health providers bore more of the responsibility for finding the missing patients I think they might get better at the risk assessments! As currently there is very little incentive for them to get it right, certainly financially they spend Police resources with no come back on them at all!

    1. Are NHS staff allowed to restrain patients off NHS property ?. I recall being told that if a nurse is taking a patient on a section for a walk for exercise on a public road (possibly due to lack of grounds within the NHS facility) then the nurse is not legally permitted to physically try to prevent that patient absconding should the patient choose to do so.

      1. This is a common misconception. Restraint can be used anywhere on the basis of prevention of a crime, self defence setc. but it is also covered in the provisions of the MHA. Specifically if a service user was a risk to themselves or others and iut was safe for staff to use restraint then they should do so. However on a practical level most care staff are trained in team restraint not individual restraint. So if a single member of staff was escorting a service user the advice would be not to restrain. The advice is to ensure the service user is in eye sight and contact the unit (sometimes the police) for assistance. Higher risk service users will be escorted by more staff to ensure that a team restraint could be used. This is usually only for court and appointments at a general hospital. A service user who needs escorting by a full team is unlikely to be granted leave .

    2. When my daughter went missing whilst on Section 3 a member of staff found it amusing. My daughter was allowed to get money from her scheme with another patient posing as her carer. Police time was wasted looking for her. When a patient who may be unstable who is not on a section goes missing noone could care less and only the person who went missing with my daughter was being reported missing despite the fact my daughter was extremely vulnerable and suffering from the effects of the drug Quetiapine which should have only been given to her short term but she was on it for years. When I refused to leave the ward insisting staff report her missing, this was refused by tme and I got threatened with arrest.

      As my daughter said “they cannot see what is in my head” – these words question each and every professional and no matter how many risk assessments are carried out how accurate can they possibly be.

      When a patient is dumped into society time and time again under a scheme that is not offering enough support they are bound to go downhill, living off junk food, becoming isolated. Some patients beg to go back on the ward but once on the ward they beg to be released. It is the care in the community letting many down and that is why a fresh look needs to be given – maybe there should be different types of therapeutic communities as my daughter responded more to another resident than staff – Within a therapeutic community a patient could avoid constant referral to the shocking acute wards and if a patient was happy then there would be less risk of absconding as there is little effort by social services to integrate people like my daughter who once worked and was doing OK back into society. A social worker once said “she would happier amongst her own kind”. I desperately tried to get her away from the MH environment but lack of support, isolation and unhealthy eating led to her return time and time again and going missing. Now under private sector – this is more like a secure prison in that even escorted leave with her family alone was not permitted in the first instance for some time – professionals can just manipulate the law if they so wish as regards leave and the tribunal process. It is no excuse to keep saying a patient is of risk to themselves and keeping them on never ending prison sentences like some people I know simply because there are no decent facilities in the community to place them and the longer someone is in hospital the more difficult to rehabilitate them. Also I disagree with forced drugging as someone might have been abused in the first instance and instead of intensive trauma therapy got drug after drug as “care”.

  2. thorny one about restraint have asked several times and got conflicting advice it seems to revolve around insurance (would the trust support us if did restrain and damage done), is it lawful sec 18 seems vague. we are taught to restrain in 3s. saying that once stopped a bus and removed a potential absconder, these days probably get a disciplinary!

    1. Which bit is vaugue? It says nothing about being on hospital grounds. Besides police don’t get ANY MH restraint training.

      1. it the mental act that is vague and the mental health trusts position on restraining which says in our trust about no restraining outside the hospital, don’t agree with it personally but guess i am in an minority. as for methods of restraint in mental health there is host of different ways but they all have a minimum of three people, tend not to use belts cuffs etc and rely on technique not physical strength. most mental health nurses imho are fairly unfit and some are certainly a little shy of getting involved,

  3. My local hospitals policy:

    Police transportation should not be used unless in exceptional and limited circumstances of high risk and immediate need of return. Police assistance in returning patients should generally be limited to assisting a suitably qualified and experience health professional in returning the patient to hospital (paragraph 21.13, Code of Practice).

    Yet they look at me like I’m mad when I ask where I’m meeting them to bring the patient back.

Comments are closed.