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Carers plead guilty to neglect after woman found locked in car on Chatham High Street

By Lynn Cox

Carers left a severely autistic woman locked in a car alone while they went on a two-and-a-half hour shopping spree.

Sylvia Ezeorji, 47 and Veronica Howe, 52, were both care support workers for 58-year-old Claire McMullen, who suffers with autism, learning difficulties and does not speak.

She was found by police locked in a car in Chatham High Street on a hot day in July after concerned members of the public dialed 999 when they saw the vehicle rocking.

Syliva Ezeorji

Syliva Ezeorji

Initially it was thought a dog may be trapped inside, but when officers investigated further, they saw Ms McMullen in the back.

She was wearing a big coat and sweating. Beside her was a packet of Wotsits and a bottle of water the carers had left for her, but Ms McMullen was not even capable of opening the items.

Howe, of Castle Road, Chatham, and Ezeorji, of Porters Avenue, Dagenham, have pleaded guilty to neglect.

They were told by the court their actions showed "total disregard for a person's life".

Magistrates heard Ms McMullen is deemed a very vulnerable adult.

She needs two-to-one care 24 hours a day as she is in danger of choking on food so she must be supervised at all times.

The court was told officers had to smash a window to free Ms McMullen because they were so concerned about her welfare.

Veronica Howe

Veronica Howe

She was immediately given water and drank it thirstily before being taken to hospital by ambulance to be checked over.

Ezeorji and Howe returned to the vehicle at about 4pm, two-and-a-half hours after they had abandoned her inside.

Police were still on the scene and arrested the pair on suspicion of neglect.

Both were later charged and pleaded guilty at Medway Magistrates’ Court.

They returned to the same court for sentencing.

James Nichols, prosecuting, said: “She was left on her own with a coat on in the middle of summer with water and crisps left for her, which she could not open.

They [the carers] spent two-and-a-half hours shopping and an estate agent had seen them arrive at 1.25pm and the police were called out to the car at 3pm, she had been in the car for an hour-and-a-half at that point.”

The court also heard a statement from the manager of Ms McMullen’s care home in Crawley, who said the support workers had told him they were going shopping with her in town.

"She was left on her own with a coat on in the middle of summer with water and crisps left for her, which she could not open" - Prosecutor James Nichols

He had thought that meant they were going to Crawley or nearby, as taking a resident out of the borough would need to be authorised beforehand.

The statement also said the pair knew her care-plan and had helped draw it up, so leaving her in the car showed a total disregard for the plan.

Mr Nichols also told magistrates that police saw Ms McMullen repeatedly rocking herself in the car, which had tinted windows.

The weather had been overcast, but very humid with the temperature around 20C.

He said one of the officers looked in the car to see a woman in the back with a purple coat on and no shoes.

He added: “He knocked on the window and the woman shuffled her feet, but made no eye contact.

“Three attempts to open the car were made before the window was smashed and when paramedics arrived and gave her water, she drank at speed.”

When Ezeorji and Howe came back to the car at about 4pm they asked police what had happened and if Ms McMullen was OK.

The court was told the pair had admitted their actions fell below what is required of them and said they did go to check on her in the car, but left her there again and just forgot about the time.

Magistrates decided their sentencing powers were insufficient and sent the case to Maidstone Crown Court to be dealt with.

Chairman of the bench, Veenod Rama, said: “This is an extremely serious case and you showed a total disregard for a person’s life.

"There is no excuse, it was callous and selfish behaviour on a very vulnerable person.”

A date for Ezeorji and Howe’s sentencing has not yet been fixed.

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