Who was Thomas Rawnsley?

This blog post was originally shared as a twitter thread here. I’ve duplicated it here for ease of anyone reading other posts on my blog and to ensure who Thomas was is captured somewhere other than twitter. I’ve also edited some of the tenses given this was written after Thomas’s inquest had concluded.

Gather round, you know the drill, grab a brew and a choccie biccie, and steal yourselves. Please let me introduce you to Thomas.

Thomas was born on the 7 June 1994. Wet Wet Wet were number one with Love is All Around and for the Rawnsley family this couldn’t have been more true. Thomas was a longed for son to his mum, Paula, and Dad, Paul, and his three older sisters Becky, Charlotte and Katie.

Thomas’s family describe him as a ‘beautiful, loving, compassionate and most of all mischievous’ little boy. Even as a young adult Thomas was still little, standing tall at 4ft 10. Thomas liked ketchup, gansta music and going to the park.

Becky shared a brilliant video on facebook of Thomas enjoying the roundabout. You can watch it here. Thomas enjoyed spending time with his family, and was loved like only a youngest brother to three big sisters can be.

He was a very much loved son, brother and uncle; pretty much at the heart of the Rawnsley family.

By the time he was a teenager Thomas was known to be autistic and was living at home with his mum and sisters, he communicated using Makaton and was able to make his needs understood if people got to know him well. At times his communication was crystal clear.

Thomas started to become anxious as his teenage years set in and keen to keep him at home Paula asked for support. Thomas was removed from his family, into the ‘care’ of social services. What followed is nothing short of a horror story.

Once in care, between 2012 and 2013 Thomas was abused by a care worker at Norcott House in Liversedge. Paula became increasingly concerned about Thomas’s behaviour, while it was normal for him to be homesick, he had started to become violent and to self-harm. It emerged that Thomas had been physically and psychologically abused by Terence Thompson, who received a suspended jail sentence and unpaid community service.

Having been taken into the ‘care’ of the State Thomas was abused and unsurprisingly was left traumatised by that. His behaviour became unsettled, he was distressed and increasingly mistrustful of staff (again who wouldn’t be in that situation?). The staff at the home where Thomas was abused, felt his mistrust of them was a threat to their safety and they could no longer support him.

Rather than receive specialist trauma support, Thomas was moved to a secure Assessment and Treatment Unit in Bradford. Thomas didn’t receive specialist support in the ATU, instead he was heavily medicated to the point where his family consider he resembled a zombie. He had unexplained injuries and was subject to physical restraint, this terrified and traumatised young lad, all 4ft 10 of him.

Thomas’s parents grew increasingly concerned about the treatment of their son, and the threat of him being moved even further away (to Peterborough). They complained about his mistreatment, to safeguarding, to social care, to anyone who would listen.

An independent panel agreed the move to Peterborough should be blocked and they recommended Thomas have his own flat…. but Bradford District Care Trust were unable to provide that and so Thomas ended up shifted to Sheffield. Thomas was moved to Kingdom House, a specialist service run by Lifeways, 50 miles from his family and friends. Thomas was the first resident of this new service, and he arrived deeply traumatised and terrified.

Thomas’s family were concerned about the ‘care’ provided to Thomas at Kingdom House. They raised repeated concerns with safeguarding and social care. Paula describes being in a meeting:

‘I told them they were killing my son, only to be told we had to wrap it up as the meeting room cost money… 3 weeks later he was dead‘.

Thomas was under a Deprivation of Liberty Safeguard when he died in February 2015 so his inquest is an Article 2 inquest with a jury. However, at the 8th pre-inquest review hearing Coroner Christopher Dorries ruled the abuse Thomas suffered, his ATU care, treatment and over medication, the decision to place him at Kingdom House and families concerns about carpet burns on his body in weeks before his death, were not causative of death, and therefore were out of scope.

Instead it was decided that Thomas’s inquest would focus on the last five days of his life alone. His family hoped it would provide answers for how a 20 year old can die from a chest infection. This was the last time Paula saw her son, and the first and only time he met his niece.

The snow was bad the last weekend Thomas was alive so Paula couldn’t travel to him. His Dad saw him though, saw the unexplained carpet burns and that he was struggling to breathe with a chest infection. Thomas collapsed on the Sunday night.

Thomas suffered a cardiac arrest and was taken to hospital. His life support was turned off, with his family at his bedside.

Paula did everything she could while he was alive:

‘I was seen as a trouble maker, a complainer who expected too much for her child; I was threatened with arrest if I bought him home and gagged from speaking out’.

Thomas’s family have had an excruciating wait for justice. His inquest starts tomorrow at Sheffield Coroners Court and is tabled for 5wks.

The information above was written in September 2019. What happened next was another blow in Thomas’s family’s search for justice.

2019 Hearing

Two days into Thomas’s 5 week inquest hearing, court was adjourned because Lifeways, the care provider, were objecting to the expert evidence that the coroner had commissioned. They wanted to instruct their own expert.

Emily Formby, Paula’s barrister, told the court:

Where my instructions from the family sit is this has been long fought to get to here, there’s been much effort along the way from many people and to lose what is now set up is heart-breaking. The family would therefore wish for the inquest to proceed, but not at the expense of it being a properly regarded inquest.

When Coroner Dorries adjourned Thomas’s last inquest he said the following:

‘Mrs Rawnsley, how terrible, I know, you came here expecting a 5wk hearing… I can possibly just get to the edges of imagining how disappointed you’ll be but we only get one chance and I’m determined, and I hope I’ve made it plain throughout. I’m determined within the confines of the law, we’ll have a proper investigation into Thomas’s death. We can’t do it if we charge ahead… its no-one’s fault, it’s not as if someone has forgotten to do something. Please accept my apologies, it’s not for inconvenience, but for the trauma, this has put you through’

That was Coroner Dorries in September 2019.

And he’s right, it is traumatic.

Unbelievably so.

Since last year Coroner Dorries has retired and Ms Abigail Combes was the Assistant Coroner conducting the hearing into Thomas’s death that concluded this week.

I want to talk about Paula for a moment. Paula is short and petite, she’s slight. She takes pride in her appearance, her hair always straightened, sharp blunt fringe, lipstick. She smokes, almost nervously, she calls a spade a spade, and she’s sociable, likes a night out.

I think those in authority see Paula and underestimate her. What they’re not picking up on is she’s smart, bright and astute. She doesn’t say a lot but when she speaks it’s worth listening to. Paula is dogged, fighting for Thomas in his lifetime and for 5.5 years since.

Paula works as a carer and as Thomas’s inquest loomed last year she had to quit her job. No employer, however compassionate, is going to pay someone on minimum wage for 5wks to sit in a coroner’s court. So she had to quit. We caught the tram together back to the station after the aborted inquest and she just mentioned this, she wasn’t complaining, was just saying now she’d need to find a new job.

Paula and Thomas’s family will have to travel daily from Bradford (Tier 2) into Sheffield (Tier 3) and she at least has a letter to show anyone who questions her as to why she’s travelling. This is all just additional stress and trauma, on top of unimaginable trauma.

I spoke to Paula before the inquest reconvened, after she’d had a zoom meeting with her solicitor Sebastian Del Monte from HJA and barrister, Emily Formy from 39 Essex Chambers. Paula said she ‘almost wished it wasn’t happening as some key witnesses will be giving evidence remotely‘. Paula was also concerned about how close she’d be, or wouldn’t be to her legal team. She was worried not being close would ‘hamper communications between myself and my legal team‘. Social distancing is of course essential, but I can’t help wonder if this is justice?

I keep saying I can’t imagine, but I honestly can’t even come close to the edges of imagining what it’s like to be Paula. To have pleaded with people, them ignore you and your son die. To then endure over 5yrs of waiting, the inquest start and be adjourned on Day 2. To then find yourself caught up in the maelstrom that is 2020, and to have waited *so* long for your son’s inquest, for the scope to have been narrowed and narrowed, and then to not even get to look people in the eye. To not see them, see you, as they give their evidence.

2020 Hearing

I wasn’t able to attend court this year due to it being held in Sheffield and coronavirus preventing me attending in person. Evidence was heard on various days over three weeks and then the court had arranged access via Teams for members of the public and press for the coroner’s summing up to the jury.

I’ve written about the final day in a blog post here, which also discusses another inquest that was heard and concluded this week.

You can read Thomas’s families statement on the conclusion of his inquest here.

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