Worker suspended over dementia patient's disappearance claims inquiry was a whitewash

Karmenu Fino, an 83-year-old dementia patient had walked out of St Vincent De Paul residence last June and his body was discovered days later about eight kilometres away from the home

SVPR resident Karmenu Fino walked out of the elderly home in Luqa and his lifeless body was found days later in Birżebbuġa (Photo: Police)
SVPR resident Karmenu Fino walked out of the elderly home in Luqa and his lifeless body was found days later in Birżebbuġa (Photo: Police)

A St Vincent De Paul employee, suspended over the disappearance of a dementia patient who was found dead two weeks later, has filed a judicial protest, accusing the authorities of ignoring his warnings.

Social assistance worker Robert Belli, one of a number of employees suspended after the incident, described the internal inquiry as "very superficial".

Karmenu Fino, an 83-year-old dementia sufferer whose condition rendered him unable to speak, had walked out of the care home on the night of the 27 June, walking almost eight kilometres to the spot where his body was later discovered.  

Although a body was found near Għar Dalam in Birżebbuġa in early July, it took over a month for DNA analysts to confirm that the remains belonged to Fino.  

Fino's disappearance had prompted Active Ageing Minister Jo Etienne Abela to order an internal investigation into the case. The inquiry had found significant shortcomings on the part of the staff working the night shift as well as the security team assigned on the night of the disappearance, but did not mention any systemic problems. 

Four security officers, two carers and a nurse at the St Vincent de Paul Residence have been suspended on half pay in connection with the case.

In a judicial protest filed against the minister, permanent secretary and the SVPR CEO on Tuesday, Belli explained that he had received a letter on 2 August, informing him that he was being recommended for suspension to the Public Service Commission. The judicial protest was signed by lawyer Roberto Montalto.

Belli said he was told that he was being suspended on a precautionary basis, pending disciplinary proceedings. The letter also stated that his suspension was to be with immediate effect until the Prime Minister made a decision on the Commission's recommendation on his precautionary suspension. 

Belli had submitted a written reply on 3 August, in which he rejected any insinuation that he was to blame and contested his precautionary suspension. 

His lawyer, Roberto Montalto, argued that the Public Service Disciplinary Regulations stipulate that precautionary suspension must be required in the public interest, saying that this mean that there had to be an urgent need for the public officer’s suspension and that his continued work in the role was incompatible with the pending disciplinary proceedings. 

Belli complained that the St. Vincent De Paul CEO, Josianne Cutajar, had failed to justify the alleged urgency of the social assistance worker’s suspension. The fact that the CEO had made accusations in Belli’s regard did not absolve her of the requirement to give convincing reasons as to why these accusations justify a precautionary suspension. This rendered the proceedings null and without effect, argued Belli’s lawyer. 

He said Belli had no responsibility for what unfortunately happened and that he had evidence to back up this statement. “To the contrary Belli had been telling the management of SVPR that the late Carmelo Fino was not suitable for the ward where he was residing at SVP because he suffered from dementia and needed specific care.” 

But besides this, there was also the Constitutional right to the presumption of innocence, which Belli’s lawyer said is incompatible with the way he was being treated. 

Any suspension and reduction in pay was “not only premature, but also in breach of the plaintiff’s fundamental rights, and this at a stage where a magisterial inquiry is still ongoing,” Montalto said. 

He added that the inquiry’s importance was underlined by the fact that the summary of the conclusions to the internal inquiry ordered by the minister was “very superficial” and strengthened Belli's claim. Belli said he had always followed the basic practices mentioned in the inquiry and insisted that it should be the management at the Saint Vincent De Paule Long Term Care Facility to ensure that specific protocols were in place for patients such as Fino. 

The lawyer said that in the weeks leading up to the filing of the judicial protest, the Public Service Commission had not replied to correspondence sent by Belli, who was now suffering “great financial prejudice, together with his family, as well as psychological prejudice.” 

Montaldo concluded that Belli had to be given a hearing, as stipulated by law, before the Public Service Commission, which should then make its recommendations to the Prime Minister on whether or not he should be suspended.