Suspended nurse made a 'scapegoat' for Karmenu Fino's disappearance, union claims

Under new directives issued by the nurses' union, MUMN, no new patients are to be admitted to St Vincent De Paul residence for the elderly

MUMN President Paul Pace said that nurse Rhys Xuereb was not given an opportunity to defend himself
MUMN President Paul Pace said that nurse Rhys Xuereb was not given an opportunity to defend himself

The Malta Union of Midwives and Nurses (MUMN) has claimed that suspended nurse Rhys Xuereb was made a “scapegoat” for system failures that led to the disappearance of Karmenu Fino from the St Vincent De Paul Residence.

The union issued a number of directives to its members, including that no new partients are to be admitted to SVPR or any other state elderly homes.

83-year-old resident Karmenu Fino went missing from St Vincent De Paul (SVDP) home on 28 June, prompting the Active Ageing Ministry to order an internal investigation into the case. Fino remains a missing person.

An independent inquiry into his disappearance found significant shortcomings on the part of staff working the night shift as well as the security team assigned on the night of the disappearance.

During a press conference on Tuesday morning, MUMN President Paul Pace said that Xuereb was a victim of a “frame-up”, and that he was suspended without given an opportunity to defend himself.

“If the system had worked, Carmelo Fino would still be alive,” Pace said.

The union boss said that although Xuereb was a reliever and had only graduated a few months prior, he had to oversee 34 patients in an open ward.

"The MUMN declares that its officials have not been interviewed by the judge in the course of this inquiry, as otherwise it would have certainly drawn his attention to the fact that the ward in question should have (during the night shift) two nurses and not one. The fact that only one nurse was on duty on the night in question is clearly a system failure, for which responsibility falls totally on the shoulders of the ministry and the administration."

According to Pace, the judge's report did not distinguish between the roles of carers and nurses, with the conclusions putting the blame entirely on the night shift personnel, without categorising the different personnel during the shift.

Pace said that it was not the nurses’ job to stay on constant watch, adding that Xuereb’s responsibility was to administer pills to Fino and that there was nothing stopping him from walking out of an open ward.

He explained that an open ward gives patients the privelege to walk in and out of it whenever they wanted to, something not mentioned in the report.

This goes back to the many arguments made by the MUMN, that the shortage of nurses had become a ticking time bomb, Pace said.

“If the system is truly working, residents suffering from dementia should be placed in a closed ward that caters for them, with measures in place that restrict them from wandering off.”

Pace argued that since Fino’s family had said that he could not even communicate verbally, the medical team should have transferred him to a closed ward.

He said that following this incident, the ministry turned SVPR into a “prison”, with a security team in place and patients having coloured tags.

“The minister cannot first state that the system is working and then overhaul it,” Pace added.

He called on the minister to conduct another inquiry, appointing a different judge and offering a chance to Xuereb to defend himself.

More directives ordered by MUMN

As per the MUMN’s new directives, that will come into effect on Thursday:

  • SVPR nurses are not to phone any of the relatives of the residents
  • Only emergency forms for medicine and injections are to be filled
  • All forms for the release of residence from SVPR are not to be filled
  • No top-up forms are to be filled

Pace said that SVPR will not be admitting any new residents until the MUMN’s demands were met. He also said that the directives would not be to the detriment of the patients’ health.

He said that those directives and others already in place would remain until no ward hosts more than 30 patients, every nursing shift has two nurses, every ward has two nurses during the night, and that nurses should not have to find a replacement when taking vacation or study leave.

Ministry denies ‘frame-up’ claims

In reaction, the Ministry for Active Ageing noted with “regret” the MUMN reaction to the conclusions of the inquiry and strongly denied the ‘frame-up’ claims.

“While the ministry once again reiterates that it appreciates and respects the efforts of MUMN to continue improving the conditions and interests of its members, it stresses again that a case where an elderly person left St Vincent De Paul during the night, and never returned, could not be ignored as some seem to pretend.”

It said that the aim of the independent inquiry by retired judge Geoffrey Valenzia was to establish facts and make recommendations, aimed at reducing the possibility of such cases from repeating themselves.

“Far from a ‘frame-up’, as the senior officials of the MUMN alleged in the last hours, an allegation that is not only rejected with the greatest force but that does no honour to whoever makes it,” the ministry said.

It said that the directives of the MUMN that are already in place, are unfair to the patients and residents of the care home. The ministry said it will continue to act in a “dignified, correct, democratic and transparent manner”, out of respect for the patients and the absolute majority of workers. “Therefore the appeal remains for everyone to act responsibly.”

PN says government should admit to deficiencies

Meanwhile, the Nationalist Party said that it would be unfair for the government to blame the staff at SVDP over the disappearance of Karmenu Fino without acknowledgeing flaws wtihin the residence’s system.

The party said that Valenzia’s report makes it clear that the residence’s system has a number of flaws – something which he evidently pointed out on page 24 of his inquiry report.

“The Nationalist Party insists that the government and SVDP’s leadership cannot abdicate their own responsibilities,” the party said in a statement signed by MP Paula Mifsud Bonnici.

In his report, Valenzia makes a number of recommendations. He suggests drafting a set of criteria that the Multiplinary Disciplinary Team use to determine the patient's condition and which ward he will be assigned, while updating the Standard Operating Procedures at SVDP.

He further recommended clearer definitions on the roles of carers, health workers, and nurses, and insisted that the management and staff at the residence should work to understand each other’s role and environment better.

“The Nationalist Party stresses that the government should not continue to bury its head in the sand, and it should start by first admitting that there are several problems in SVDP, including a lack of nurses,” the party said.

It also called out the government on turning SVDP into a “prison”, with a number of companies being approached to provide security services to the residence.

The government must take quick action to safeguard and treat the elderly in SVDP with respect.