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Lack of respite care in Caithness is 'an absolute scandal', says Thurso community councillor

By Gordon Calder

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A THURSO community councillor has described the lack of respite care for Caithness families with children who have special needs as "an absolute scandal".

Billy Sinclair said: "All we are fighting for is a fair deal. We are not asking for the sun, moon and stars." He was speaking at last week's meeting of the community council which heard that a new pressure group has been set up to try and restore a respite facility in the county.

Respite care was provided at a specially designed unit at Thor House in Thurso until the outbreak of the Covid pandemic. A review was then to be undertaken but when Avonlea children's home was shut in Wick the youngsters there were transferred to Thor House. Highland Council has since said there is no need for a respite unit at the Thurso facility.

Members of the as yet unnamed new group, including mothers spoke at the meeting as did a former social work employee, an ex-councillor and a retired head teacher. They all backed the bid to get respite care restored in Caithness. At present, the nearest facility is in Inverness.

David Flear, who was a social work manager and Caithness councillor, said: "The idea of Thor House not being needed any more for respite care came as a shock to me. I was very surprised to hear that. It is sad to see what has happened.

"We had good resources in Caithness and good managers running them but that is all gone. It is all run from Inverness now."

Former social worker, Dan Mackay, said the need for respite care in Caithness was highlighted by the 30 families who attended the first meeting of the new group. "We need to get services for the vulnerable people in the community," he said.

Dan Mackay is a former manager at Thor House.
Dan Mackay is a former manager at Thor House.

Mr Mackay acknowledged there are problems recruiting and retaining staff but said: "Parents are very frustrated by years of banging their heads against a wall and being being fobbed off about their concerns. Hopefully, something constructive will come from the birth of this new group."

He said the Highland Council's head of children's services wants to meet the new group but added: "Actions speak louder than words so we will have to wait and see what happens."

Mr Mackay wondered why the local authority could not buy a bungalow or similar type of house and use that for local respite care. "If it did not work out they could always sell it, " he said.

Thurso and Northwest Caithness councillor, Matthew Reiss, referring to a letter from Highland Council which said there is no need for a four-bedded respite unit at Thor House, stressed that 30 families turned up to the first meeting of the new group. "You can draw your own conclusions from that," he said.

Councillor Reiss pointed out that the Avonlea children's home in Wick cost £1. 2 million and was closed after eight years. "These decisions are taken a long way from Caithness," said councillor Reiss who claimed the changes made to respite care at Thor House during the Covid pandemic "just happened." The person who could best explain that is Donna Manson who was the chief executive at the time," he said.

Fellow Thurso councillor Ron Gunn said what is happening in Caithness is "a farce" and stressed there is "an absolute need "for such facilities in the area. "People should not be fobbed off and told to go to Inverness," he said.

Billy Sinclair contacted Highland Council about the review of Thor House under a Freedom of Information (FoI) request and was told there was no review.

"It is an absolute scandal what is happening here and we have got to get something done, " he said.

Councillor Reiss said it is "ridiculous" that a community councillor has to submit an FoI to get information from the local authority. " It is sad they said a review was being carried out and now say there was no review." Community council secretary, Iain Gregory, said these services are "a human rights issue" and should be provided in the county.

Thurso mother, Elizabeth Jones, who has a seven-year-old autistic son and is the secretary of the new group, agreed. "All we want is basic services." She said Caithness, Sutherland and easter Ross MP, Jamie Stone, has been approached on the issue and a meeting is scheduled to take place this month. "We will carry on fighting," she added.

Elizabeth Jones and her son, Ollie.
Elizabeth Jones and her son, Ollie.

Sarah Jane Scollay, who chairs the new group, said there are many children with autism in Caithness, ranging from mild to severe forms. "It is mentally and physically draining for families and is going from bad to worse," she said.

Former head teacher, Ranald McAuslan, said the special needs budget has had "more than its fair share of cuts in recent years" and claimed the level of ignorance about autism is "quite surprising." He said the Education Act offers provision tailored to the needs of the pupil and is "not limited or restrictive."

A person at the meeting who wished to remain anonymous said people at Highland Council are "making decisions they are not qualified to make" and claimed the management structure is "disintegrating."

"We need to put pressure on the chief executive to come and speak to us. We have to raise the profile on this. I can't see any other way round it."

After the meeting, Mrs Jones, described as "an insult and a farce" the claim by Highland Council that there is no need for a four-bedded respite unit at Thor House in Thurso.

"I feel huge disappointment and frustration at this decision. Previously, families could get one or two nights a month for respite care and that was amazing and made a big difference," she said.

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