Natasha Mulholland: 'She couldn't fight him' - victim's mother

By Declan Harvey
BBC News NI

  • Published
Media caption,

Natasha's mother told BBC News NI her daughter had no way of defending herself

A 56-year-old County Antrim man has received a three-year sentence for a "cruel" sexual assault on a woman with profound learning difficulties.

Ronnie Carleton of Ballymena Road, Cullybackey, admitted sexually touching Natasha Mulholland, 33, even though he would have reasonably been able to tell she could not fight back.

Carleton will spend 18 months in prison and a further 18 on licence.

The incident happened at Antrim Area Hospital (AAH) in March 2016.

The victim, who has since died, had been sharing a mixed-gender ward with Carleton when the attack happened.

Judge Desmond Marrinan addressed Carleton and said his actions "were despicable and inexcusable".

"I seriously question whether hospital management gave sufficient consideration to provide safe and secure care for this victim," he said.

"I cannot think of any circumstances that would be appropriate to place such a disabled and vulnerable woman in a mixed ward."

In a statement, the Northern Health Trust said it was an "abhorrent offence" and that its thoughts were "with the family of the victim".

"We very much share their distress that such a thing could have happened at all, but particularly in a health care setting where the focus is on treating people who are there because they are ill," it said.

"Although we are focused on minimising the risk of such events occurring in the future we are not currently in a position to make any further comment."

Image caption,
Ronnie Carleton admitted sexually touching Natasha Mulholland

Who was Natasha Mulholland?

Natasha Mulholland was born with the genetic disorder Rett syndrome which affects muscles and speech.

"She needed total help with every single aspect of her life," her mother, Donna, told BBC News NI.

"Feeding, washing, changing - Natasha couldn't do a thing for herself.

"She couldn't fight. She couldn't say no. She couldn't defend herself."

Natasha died surrounded by her family on 27 December 2016, nine months after the attack.

Although her mother knew her daughter had a limited life expectancy she said: "The last nine months of her life were very unhappy.

"She deserves to rest now because this world was just too cruel."

Image source, DONNA MULHOLLAND
Image caption,
Natasha Mulholland's mother told the BBC her daughter needed help with 'every single aspect of her life'

"Natasha was let down. She wasn't protected. Vulnerable people need protecting from people like Ronnie Carleton."

What happened?

Natasha Mulholland had been admitted to Antrim Area Hospital (AAH) with pneumonia on 16 March 2016.

Three days later she was moved to Ward C3 and placed in a mixed gender bay, with one other woman and four men.

One of those men was Ronnie Carleton, a supervisor at an animal feed plant, who had been admitted after collapsing because of the effects of alcohol.

The court heard he had been suffering hallucinations.

At about 01:00 GMT the following morning, Ronnie Carleton, who had been in a bed near Natasha, sexually assaulted her.

Carleton was "robustly" challenged by a nurse who found Carleton kneeling at Ms Mulholland's bedside.

The court was told he responded: "I thought she was ok with it" and that she was over 18 years of age."

Soon Carleton was removed from the ward by security and held until the police arrived.

Image source, DONNA MULHOLLAND

Although Carleton eventually admitted the assault his legal team said he had no memory of that night however he "knows and accepts the shame as indescribable," the judge said.

Donna Mulholland said: "We found afterwards Natasha lost her spark. She was pretty miserable and unhappy, not her normal self."

Of Carleton she said: "I'm angry he did that to my wee girl. His actions have destroyed not just our lives but his own life."

Why was she in a mixed gender bay?

An internal investigation by Antrim Area Hospital found there was "no person centred care plan to reflect Natasha Mulholland's communication problems/difficulties".

It also added: "Nursing staff did not adhere to the Northern Health and Social Care Trust's (NHSCT) Privacy and Dignity Policy."

In its statement the NHSCT said: "The Northern Trust carried out an appropriate investigation and identified areas of learning. As far as is practical, we are acting on these."

'Patient's vulnerability'

Concerns around mixed gender wards at the Northern Health and Social Care Trust (NHSCT) had been raised previously.

In 2012 a review by the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA) said senior management at the hospital "spoke of challenges in achieving a reduction in occurrences of mixed gender accommodation".

It also said that "members of staff did not appear to be aware of the key indicators of patient's vulnerability whilst in hospital".

The Department of Health's current policy states: "The overriding principle is that all patients in adult inpatient areas should be cared for in same gender accommodation except where it is in the overall best interests of the patient."

These exceptions can include admission to specialist wards.

Image source, Mulholland family
Image caption,
Donna Mulholland said afterwards her daughter Natasha had "lost her spark"

The family solicitor has confirmed they will be taking legal action against the NHSCT.