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  • “Getting the hospital to be honest with us felt like a battle from day one.” An interview with Derek Richford

    • UK
    • Interviews and reflections
    • Pre-existing
    • Original author
    • No
    • Derek Richford
    • Everyone


    Derek Richford’s grandson Harry died in November 2017 at just a week old. Since Harry’s death, Derek has worked tirelessly to uncover the truth about what happened at East Kent Hospitals University Foundation Trust (EKHUFT) to cause Harry’s death. His efforts resulted in a three-week Article 2 inquest that found that Harry had died from neglect. In addition, the Care Quality Commission (CQC) successfully prosecuted the Trust for unsafe care and treatment and Derek’s work has contributed to a review into maternity and neonatal care services at EKHUFT.

    In this interview, we speak to Derek about how EKHUFT and other agencies engaged with his family following Harry’s death. As well as outlining how a culture of denial at the Trust affected his family, he talks about individuals and organisations that acted with respect and transparency. He highlights what still needs to be done to make sure bereaved families are treated with openness and dignity when a loved one dies due to avoidable harm.


    Hi Derek, thank you for speaking to me today. 

    Firstly, can you describe the attitude of managers and senior clinicians at the Trust towards your family after Harry’s death?

    Leaders and staff at EKHUFT were closed off to us from the beginning. At every step, it very much felt like they were saying, “There’s nothing to see here.” Looking back, I realised very soon after Harry’s birth that we needed to start documenting what was happening because the Trust was not being honest. When I arrived at the hospital, we asked a nurse for the name of the doctor who had overseen my daughter-in-law Sarah’s care, and who my son Tom had expressed concerns about. The nurse told us, “You can’t have that information, it’s confidential.” At that point I started photographing Sarah’s notes as I wanted to make sure we had a record.

    Once the Trust’s internal investigation into Harry’s death started, they told us they couldn’t talk to us while it was ongoing. When we said that we wanted to contribute, we were totally shut out. It was upsetting that the investigation was used as a reason to avoid engaging with us, but we allowed them to get on with it for four months until they released the root cause analysis report into Harry’s death.

    We were offered a meeting at the Trust in March 2018, so we requested to see the report beforehand. After initially saying they would just show us the report at the meeting, they eventually agreed to send us a hard copy by post, saying they couldn’t send it by email. When we finally got to read it, the report was full of errors and just didn’t add up. At the meeting, it became clear that we knew more about their report than the consultants in the room did. They were totally in denial that Harry’s death could have been avoided and were told that there was no way it needed to be referred to the Coroner.

    I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what was going on, but I just knew something was wrong with the way Harry’s death was being treated. I began to suspect that what happened to us had happened to many, many families before us—the Trust had avoided taking responsibility and failed to make referrals to the Coroner for years, saying that baby deaths were ‘expected’. Their argument that Harry’s death was expected was that they didn’t have to factor in anything that happened more than 24 hours before they withdrew life support. Later we found that, on their internal notes, Harry’s death was described as an unexpected outcome.

    It is undoubted that there had been a cover up in the maternity department for many years and I don’t think anyone would deny that now. To quote the Kirkup report, “This pattern of behaviour by the Trust, clearly evident in this case, recurred in many others that we examined. It included denying that anything had gone amiss, minimising adverse features, finding reasons to treat deaths and other catastrophic outcomes as expected, and omitting key details in accounts given to families as well as to official bodies. Although we did not find evidence that there was a conscious conspiracy, the effect of these behaviours was to cover up the truth.”

    When it came to Harry’s inquest, the Trust didn’t expect or want it to happen and were obstructive throughout the process. When the Coroner suggested that it should be an Article 2 inquest, the Trust disputed it, arguing that it didn’t even come close to the criteria, which was obviously untrue.

    If the hospital had been upfront with us about what had happened in Harry’s case right at the beginning, we would have been able to forgive the staff and move on. But they didn’t do that. Instead, it felt like a battle from day one and I had to force myself into areas they did not want me to look.

    At times, I have been painted by Trust staff as a trouble maker. The Trust’s Chief Executive had to apologise to me after writing to our local MP Sir Roger Gale that I was trying to “undermine the reputation of the entire hospital.” This was in response to a letter Roger wrote to the Trust when I raised concerns that they were rating their maternity department 10/10. When NHS Resolution finally investigated, they found that the Trust was actually only scoring 6/10, and the Trust had to repay the large rebate the maternity department had been awarded for their self-audited high score.

    How were you able to keep pushing for answers in the face of the Trust’s attitude to your family? 

    As Harry’s grandfather, I was one step removed from the situation. That enabled me to stand back and look at what was going on, to ask questions and raise issues that newly bereaved parents would struggle to raise. I call it ‘the grandparent effect’, and it made a huge difference in this case. I was able to be an advocate for Harry’s parents Sarah and Tom, who were obviously severely affected by losing their baby.

    I looked into the various reviews and audits the maternity unit had been through, and kept uncovering more evidence. The Trust was lacking in so many areas—I dug and dug and with every layer of the onion I took off, I found more rot beneath.

    I feel it’s so important to share what we’ve been through and what we managed to achieve by not backing down. Once the inquest was over, I learned how to set a website up and published Harry’s Story. I wanted to collect all the information and evidence we had gathered in one, accessible place.
    I’m still working with EKHUFT now, trying to help them make improvements and deliver Bill Kirkup’s Reading the Signals report, but there’s still such a long way to go.

    How easy was it to find out which organisations you could refer your concerns about Harry's care to?

    The Trust left us to our own devices, so I took any route I could to try and find out the truth about what happened to Harry. I went to many organisations such as AvMA and kept being told, “Yes, we hear of these things happening, have you tried X organisation?” We were being sent from pillar to post, but kept trying to find out how we could take it further.

    I happened to have a relative working for an unrelated department of the Care Quality Commission (CQC) and she recommended that I make a report to the CQC. It was an uphill struggle to be heard by them and I initially found that they really didn’t want to engage with me. They eventually, after 10 months, got back to me saying there was nothing for them to investigate, and at that point I replied by copying in Professor Ted Baker, then Chief Inspector at the CQC. At that point, things started to change!

    Although the CQC eventually started to engage with us, I’m struck by how we were expected to go to them. We were invited to a meeting in London—we paid our own train fares and Tom had to take a day off work, which is difficult as a teacher. 

    Were there individuals who engaged with you and your family well? What was it about their response that was positive?

    The individuals who engaged well with us were honest and listened to what we had to say. The Director of Maternity for Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch (HSIB), Sandy Lewis, was so helpful. She would call me with regular updates and communicate how much Harry’s case mattered to her. I could sense her commitment to seeing change. 

    HSIB in general were exceptionally helpful, but there were hurdles to overcome there too. Harry was born in November 2017, but HSIB only had the remit to investigate cases from April 2018. I spoke with various individuals at the organisation including the medical director, who was keen to take on Harry’s case as he recognised its seriousness. They eventually found a way to take it on, by carrying out a learning investigation rather than a maternity investigation.

    The coroner’s officer was also fantastic—she listened and was so encouraging. I was constantly emailing new evidence over and in every email I would apologise for the extra reading, but she was so affirming and would say, “Send me whatever you want, I’ll make sure the Coroner sees everything.” The Coroner was also very respectful and told me what a difference I was making; after Harry’s inquest, he said to me, “You’ve done a good thing. Without you this wouldn’t have come before me Mr Richford.” I get very emotional thinking about it even now.

    You and your family suffered a terrible loss. How did the responses of the Trust following Harry's death affect your family further?

    We’ve discussed this as a family before. The loss of Harry was on one level, but the denial and the way we were treated by the Trust was almost worse—I would say it added at least 50% to the trauma. The approach taken by the Trust was to deny, delay and defend, and the damage that has caused us as a bereaved family is immense.

    Have you seen any positive change in how bereaved families are treated by the system?

    One positive move is that I was recently involved in the panel to appoint the new Chief Midwife for England. It was a privilege to be part of the process, and it felt like being told, “You are welcome at this table.” So maybe we are making a difference, but progress is far too slow. 

    For patients and families, the cost of engaging is far more than it should be, both emotionally and financially, as I mentioned earlier. It’s only because I run my own business that I was able to do what I did. I spent hours and hours investigating Harry’s death. We need the NHS to actively help make it easier for people to engage, and to overcome barriers such as financial cost and working hours. 

    During our first meeting with the CQC, I realised that we had access to information that they didn’t—for example, they weren’t aware of a Royal College of Gynaecologists (RCOG) report about EKHUFT that was referenced in the Trust’s board papers. I had done the legwork to draw all the evidence together, which none of the statutory organisations had done. Eventually the CQC agreed to prosecute the Trust for unsafe care and treatment. The prosecution was successful, and the evidence we had collected contributed significantly to that.

    Lots of families whose babies have died due to harm in or after labour get in touch with me, and their experiences tell me that bereaved families are still being treated with suspicion and a lack of care. I recently discovered that some of the families who took part in the EKHUFT Kirkup investigation—and whose cases featured in the final report—are having to go through a whole new investigation process to claim compensation through NHS Resolution. That means reopening case notes and revisiting yet again the harrowing events that led to the deaths of their babies. The level of trauma this will cause for parents who had hoped the inquiry would bring the justice they need is huge. It is yet another example of how the system is not designed to support victims of harm, and how it fails to place compassion and dignity for patients and their families at the centre of pathways and processes.

    What do we still need to see change in how organisations respond to families when a loved one dies due to avoidable harm?

    We need people like me (but not me!) at the top of the NHS—‘real-life’ people who can represent the patient perspective at local board level and right up to the top of the NHS. Most of the people who are currently in leadership have only ever worked for the NHS or have worked there for years, and they don't know any other way of working. There’s an extent to which NHS leaders are institutionalised—they accept the foibles of the system as normal. In the face of serious patient safety concerns many seem to simply say, “No, that’s not what goes on here.” We need leaders who are upfront and honest and will say, “We made a mighty mistake and we’re sorry. We’ll do something about it.”

    We also need to see trust leaders being held to account. During our experience, we heard the phrase, “the Trust has done this,” a lot, with no individuals taking ownership of actions and decisions. Ultimately, people in leadership were responsible for so many of the lies we were told, but they never had to answer for that. In any other business, people would be held to account, but I am concerned that NHS leaders are allowed to do whatever they want. If this doesn’t change then very little else will.

    You can read more about the investigations into Harry’s death and Derek’s work to improve the safety of maternity care on the Harry’s Story website.

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