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Caithness respite care: Demand for answers over Thor House and Avonlea

By Iain Grant

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Thor House in Thurso has not provided respite services since the Covid pandemic.
Thor House in Thurso has not provided respite services since the Covid pandemic.

Community representatives are continuing to press for overnight respite care to be restored at Thor House in Thurso.

They claim they and the public have been kept in the dark about the prolonged suspension of the service and want Highland Council to be upfront about its future.

Thurso Community Council have also renewed their call for an independent review into what led to the council’s decision to close Avonlea children’s home in Wick.

Looked-after children have been accommodated at Thor House since its respite role for children with additional needs was removed at the start of the pandemic.

Speaking at Tuesday evening’s meeting, Highland councillor Struan Mackie said there is a clear, pressing need for respite care in Caithness and north Sutherland.

"They (the officials) now appear to acknowledge that," he said.

Mr Mackie said he and a number of other councillors had tried hard to retain Avonlea. The decision to close it was taken under powers delegated to officials.

Councillor Struan Mackie believes an independent review will happen.
Councillor Struan Mackie believes an independent review will happen.

He said: “They have never shown their homework as to why that decision was made.”

He had backed an independent review but that move had been narrowly defeated at a meeting last month.

Despite this knockback, he believed the local authority will be forced to carry out a review either by a legal challenge or by the intervention of an ombudsman.

The purpose-built children’s home opened in 2014 at a cost of £1.2 million and closed in December 2022.

Councillor Mackie said he has still to be given an explanation for its closure or the ongoing suspension of respite at Thor House.

Related news:

Demand for respite care ‘doubled’ as Thurso service suspended, figures show

Highland Council is working on reinstating respite care, says Cllr Bremner at Wick meeting

Bid to get independent review into closure of Avonlea children’s home in Wick fails

He also opposed the Wick unit’s new envisaged use as a facility for Wick High pupils with additional needs.

He said the issue has broken the trust between service users and Highland Council.

One problem in trying to shed light on the developments, he said, was that “the elected Caithness members are not united on this”.

The former children's home in Wick, Avonlea. Picture: DGS
The former children's home in Wick, Avonlea. Picture: DGS

Highland Council is currently reviewing two options to restore overnight respite care in the far north.

Councillor Mackie said it is unlikely the outcome of this will be known “this side of October”.

Community council chair Thelma Mackenzie said: “We continue to demand to know what were the reasons behind the closure of Avonlea and the loss of respite at Thor.”

Community council vice chair Billy Sinclair said it had been repeatedly told during and since the pandemic that a review was being carried out on the future of Thor House.

“We’ve yet to see any report on this,” he said. “We need to be at war with Highland Council. The only way we get anything done is to get lots and lots of publicity.”

Asked about a review, a Highland Council spokeswoman said: “This is ongoing and options are being explored.”

Denying the community council has been kept in the dark, she said: “Strategic lead Jacquie Hutchinson alongside Wick High head teacher Sebastian Sandecki and Christian Nicholson, of NHS Highland, spoke with the Association of Caithness Community Councils on June 5.”

Pressed on the prospects for restoring a respite service in the far north, the spokesperson said: “(There are) options for residential provision in Caithness and options for short breaks in Caithness.”

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