Tamil Nadu

St. Joseph’s Hospice: Sinners, say hospice residents; sinned against, says facility’s founder

Painful experience: Former residents of St. Joseph’s Hospice in Paleswaram, who shared harrowing tales of the time they spent there.   | Photo Credit: B. Velankanni Raj

“We were beaten every time we asked for anything,” cries Sarasa, 65, who was shifted out of St. Joseph’s Hospice in Paleswaram, Kancheepuram, last week to another home in Vilvarayanallur, Madurantakam. The year she spent in the Paleswaram Hospice was, according to her, “horror-filled.”

Pointing to a tree branch, she says: “The sticks [they used to beat us with] were that long, and very thick. I used to be so scared that I would lie on my bed and not say a word.”

St. Joseph’s Hospice has been in the eye of a storm after a dead resident was transported in a van, along with two other residents and groceries, and one of the residents attracted the attention of some locals. Since then, allegations that it practised organ commerce, involving those who died at the facility, have cropped up, but so far there is no evidence to substantiate these specific charges.

The hospice was set up in 2011 with the stated aim of improving the quality of life of destitute people who are also terminally ill. It has four branches, one each in Tambaram, Dindigul, Villupuram and Vellore. Its residents, who are now being shifted to other care homes, have harrowing tales of ill-treatment and unsanitary conditions to share. The Hindu spoke to several former residents.

“I saw the verandah only twice in the entire year, that too only when some important guests arrive. None of us were allowed to step out. Our lives were stuck between the walls,” Sarasa continues.

Fr. R. V. Thomas, director and founder of the hospice, vehemently denies all charges. He says: “We have 17 acres of land, and the residents used to walk around freely. We never stopped them from doing anything they wanted.”

The inmates used to walk freely; we never stopped them from doing anything they wanted Fr. R.V. Thomas

Fr. Thomas says the controversy has no substance to it and believes there is a right wing conspiracy behind the negative reports. He has received support from the Catholic Church, too.

Confined to beds

“If you go to that home, you have to die,” says an agitated Mani, who lost one leg in an accident and was later sent to the hospice. He is now at the Vilvarayanallur home along with Sarasa. He lived at the St. Joseph’s Hospice for two years.

This is his account: The daily routine of the residents began at 6 a.m, when they all had to line up outside the common bathrooms in their wards. They later had to sit on their beds where they were provided breakfast, lunch, dinner, and beverages during snack time. They were confined to their beds all the time. The food was bland and tasteless, and the beverages unsweetened. But if anyone dared to complain or asked for more, they were allegedly caned.

Sixty-one-year-old Muthammal recalled an incident when her friend, occupying the bed next to hers, was so badly beaten that she couldn’t move her right arm for months. “All she asked for was salt in the food. On hearing this, the caretaker barged towards her with a cane, pulled her by the hair and twisted her arm. He then warned everyone to shut up and take whatever was given,” she said.

Unhygienic wards

St. Joseph’s Hospice: Sinners, say hospice residents; sinned against, says facility’s founder

“The wards would be cleaned only on the rare occasions when there were guests at the home,” says Kalaivani, a 35-year-old destitute who was sent from a Tambaram hospital to the hospice.

“It’s true. We had to wear two masks to go inside the wards and bring them out. The place was covered in filth, traces of faeces and urine were all over. The residents had fleas, bed bugs and ticks on their person. All their clothes had to be burnt as they couldn’t be used. They also had insect bites all over their hands and legs,” says A. Munuswamy, project manager of DGSE Association, an NGO which works for women, children and geriatric care in Vilvarayanallur, in Madurantakam taluk. Some of the Paleswaram residents were shifted here.

The hospice has seven wards, each of which, as Fr. Thomas tells The Hindu, was meant for residents with a particular condition. But, the residents disagreed. All patients, they said, were herded together in any room that had space. There was no categorisation. People with severe mental illnesses were lodged with others who only had mild conditions.

“We had three such people in our ward. They would scream the whole night. One of them would get violent, beat us up and throw whatever she got her hands on. Nothing was done about it, just that the caretakers would thrash them till they cried in pain,” claims Ms. Kalaivani. She did not think they got any nursing or health care either.

According to hospice records, on an average, every day two people died at the facility. The number of persons who have died so far there is 1,663. “This place is meant for those who are dying. We want to attend to their emotional needs,” Fr. Thomas seeks to explain.

When asked if the hospice provided medical care to the residents who were not terminally ill since they were also referred to the facility, Fr. Thomas replied that they provided such people with medication and released them when they got better.

“Over 600 people have so far been cured and sent home,” he claims.

According to Fr. Thomas, two teams, one comprising psychiatrists, and the other, general physicians, used to visit the hospice, alternatively, every week to check on the patients and train the caretakers. However, former residents say this didn’t happen and only a GP visited them, once in two weeks.

Following the evacuation last month, the hospice is now lifeless and empty. The beds are all lined up against a wall and the wards locked. The caretakers remain engaged in watering the lush gardens.

‘Eco-friendly vaults’

Founder of St. Joseph's Hospice Fr. R.V. Thomas at the burial vaults.

Founder of St. Joseph's Hospice Fr. R.V. Thomas at the burial vaults.   | Photo Credit: B.Velankanni Raj


Among the serious allegations that emerged in some sections of the media related to the burial vault at the hospice. “This is what they had problems with, didn’t they?” says Fr. Thomas pointing to the 50-ft long concrete burial vaults. “This method of burial is environment-friendly and is being done in many parts of the world. And they say I’m using this to sell the bones of dead bodies of malnourished people. It’s atrocious… this is a conspiracy of right wing activists to malign our good work,” he rages.

He also shows a letter, dated 2011, from the then Kancheepuram Superintendent of Police, which stated that the State had no objection to the burial of the dead in the vaults, if due legal formalities were followed. Fr. Thomas alleges foul play on the part of the State authorities in delaying the renewal of the hospices’ registration. “My registration expired on September 18, 2017, and I applied for renewal three days before that. And now I am being called a fraud [for not possessing the right documents],” he says.

Fr. Thomas shows discharge summaries of some of the residents, most of them issued by government hospitals in and around Chennai, Kancheepuram and Vellore districts, advising that they be sent to St. Joseph’s. The police in these districts too have sent people here, he says. “If I was a fraud then why send them to me?” he asks indignantly.

Since the controversy broke, Fr. Thomas and his hospices have received support from the Catholic Church and the Tamil Nadu Bishops’ Council. A protest was organised on Monday in Chennai asking the government to treat Fr. Thomas with fairness and alleging a right wing conspiracy against a minority institution.

Officials from the Kancheepuram Collectorate and Social Welfare Department said an inquiry is under way.

The Kancheepuram District Child Welfare Committee (CWC) plans to file an FIR against the hospice for lodging nine children below nine years without registration as mandated by the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection) Act, 2015. Fr. Thomas defends this too, stating that they were all children of the caretakers and they had produced records to the authorities concerned.

The CWC contests his claim. “He is yet to show proof and records relating to the children. He is answerable for a lot of violations,” Zaheeruddin Mohamad, member, says.

New concept

Social activist A. Marx, who led a fact-finding team to Paleswaram, says that the controversy surrounding the St. Joseph’s hospice is purely a media creation. He says the concept of hospice service is new to the land and its culture. Mr. Marx points out that the number of deaths are likely to be high in a set up that takes care of terminally ill people.

Condemning the State government’s action of evicting the residents without giving time for the hospice management to clarify the doubts raised in the public domain, he urges the authorities to ensure that the service to the dying destitute be continued by allowing the hospice to function.

The wards would be cleaned only on rare occasions when there were guests Kalaivani Former resident

He also claims that the places or hospitals to which the inmates of St.Joseph’s hospice were transferred do not have the facilities required to take care of such persons. “It is not just taking care of old people but providing care to those who are about to die. Even some doctors at government hospitals do not have any exposure to this kind of service”, he said.

However, Mr. Marx does not give a clean chit to the hospice management. “We are not saying there were no lapses there. We might indicate the same in our final report, but they were not so grave that warranted immediate closure.”

Meanwhile, the police have registered a case against Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party office-bearer, G. Karunakaran of Kurumpirai hamlet, near Paleswaram, for allegedly inciting local people against the hospice.

Police probe

The Kancheepuram district police have started collecting copies of documents relating to the admission and the death of residents at the hospice.

A senior police officer says scrutiny of these documents would help to verify the data available with the Village Administrative Officer who received reports of deaths from the hospice authorities.

There was no requirement to perform the post-mortem before cremating someone who had died naturally, he adds. Revenue authorities say that the hospice management used to inform the VAO about the deaths through letters.

(Inputs from V.Venkatasubramanian)

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Printable version | Apr 7, 2021 4:49:44 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/st-josephs-hospice-sinners-say-hospice-residents-sinned-against-says-facilitys-founder/article23037290.ece

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