People with disability abused in government funded services

The Australian Government has released National Disability Abuse and Neglect Hotline data.

There were 472 reported cases of abuse and neglect of people with disability in government-funded services between July 2016 and June 2018 – more than one every two days.

Social Services Minister Dan Tehan did not put out a media statement announcing the release of the data.

He has refused to answer a number of questions about it.

Cases of abuse are going unreported

I asked him if the cases were investigated and if, where appropriate, action was taken to ensure people are safe and justice is served. He did not answer.

The government is releasing the data after a Senate inquiry found that the data “is not being made available to the community”.

The inquiry committee said it was concerned that “many more cases remain unreported, partly as a result of inadequate responses to reporting”.

The published data says the hotline is “designed to aid reporting of abuse and neglect of people with disability in Commonwealth, State and Territory funded disability services”.

“Cruel, inappropriate, unlawful treatment of Australians with disability.”

Senate Inquiry

The reported types of alleged abuse and neglect include physical abuse, psychological abuse, sexual abuse, physical neglect, financial abuse, emotional neglect, wilful neglect, constraint abuse and systematic abuse.

Government information says abuse and neglect may include:

  • “punching, hitting, slapping, burning”
  • “forcing someone to take part in sexual activity against their will”
  • “threatening, harassing or intimidating a person”
  • “restraining or isolating a person”
  • “wrongful use of another’s assets”
  • “failure to provide adequate food, shelter, clothing and protection”
  • “failure to provide the necessities of life”
  • “wilfully denying a person assistance”
  • “restricting social, intellectual and emotional growth or well-being”.

The people with disability ranged in age from under 16 to over 54.

The majority of cases involved people with physical disability, psychiatric disability, intellectual disability, autism and/or neurological disability.

There were also people with “vision impairment”, “speech” disability, “learning disability”, “hearing disability” and/or “ABI” (acquired brain injury). The information says some people may have more than one disability.

The data shows there were:

  • 91 reported cases in the six months to 31 December 2016
  • 148 in the six months to 30 June 2017
  • 101 in the six months to 31 December 2017
  • 132 in the six months to 30 June 2018.

There were 17 cases of alleged “constrain abuse”.

There were 79 reports of alleged “systematic abuse”.

Nine cases involved children under 16.

I asked Mr Tehan if the cases were investigated, if justice was served, if people with disability in government-funded services were safe and if billions of taxpayer dollars were being used appropriately. He did not answer.

The Department of Social Services said in a statement to me said: “The National Disability Abuse and Neglect Hotline is not a complaints resolution service or an individual advocacy service. It works with callers to find appropriate ways of dealing with reports of abuse or neglect through a process of referral, and providing information and support.

“Callers who report abuse and neglect involving a criminal matter are encouraged to contact the police or are referred to the police directly.”

“Neglect and abuse widespread.”

Senate Inquiry

The government is publishing the data after the 2015 Senate inquiry into violence, abuse and neglect against people with disability in institutional and residential settings noted that the hotline data “is not being made available to the community”.

The inquiry committee said abuse and neglect was “widespread”.

The inquiry heard horrific cases of abuse, torture, neglect, sexual assault and death. It heard that the “closed” nature of disability services can lead to “corruption of care”, that there was a “lack of transparency in institutional service delivery” and “in most cases victims and allegations are forgotten”.

“The committee is very disturbed by the significant body of evidence it has received which details the cruel, inappropriate and, in many cases, unlawful treatment of Australians with disability,” the inquiry report says.

“The committee is equally disturbed by the largely inadequate responses that these cases have received when reported to authorities and people in positions of responsibility.

“The committee is also concerned by the fact that many more cases remain unreported, partly as a result of inadequate responses to reporting. This is clearly unacceptable.”

The inquiry noted that the Australian Government, since becoming a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2008/9, “retains ultimate responsibility to ensure that the treatment of people with disability in Australia is compatible with the provisions of the Disability Convention”.

The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) in 2009 established the National Disability Agreement “for the provision of disability services”. COAG’s Disability Reform Council oversees implementation of the NDA. Mr Tehan is chair of the DRC.

The Senate inquiry said: “It must be noted that although the NDA states that Commonwealth legislation must be aligned with the Disability Convention, it does not require that state and territory legislation must be as well. Clearly this creates a potential for key parts of domestic law to fail to meet the requirements of the Disability Convention. Regardless of this, the Commonwealth still retains the overarching obligation to ensure that all treatment of people with disability in Australia is in keeping with the rights enshrined in the Disability Convention, regardless of whether the Commonwealth has explicitly conferred that obligation in a domestic capacity onto the state and territory governments”.

In May this year, Treasurer Scott Morrison and Mr Tehan jointly announced a Productivity Commission review of the NDA. The commision released an issues paper in July. It is accepting submissions until 24 August 2018.

“The Agreement is designed to ensure the disability services sector delivers outcomes that improve the lives of Australians with a disability,” the Morrison/Tehan statement said.

The statement said the commission will “undertake public consultation”. The consultations “haven’t been held yet, we have not confirmed any dates as yet” said Yvette Goss from the commission.

The commission is due to report by January 2019.

The United Nations has informed Australia of 35 issues it has with Australia’s obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, including matters relating to “torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” and “exploitation, violence and abuse”.

The Australian Government is due to respond to the UN next month.

The Senate inquiry recommended a Royal Commission to conduct a “more thorough investigation”, including “investigative powers, funded and empowered to visit institutions”.

On 7 June 2017, a Civil Society Statement from more than 160 organisations and 383 individuals called on Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to establish a Royal Commission.

“Restraining, isolating a person. Hitting, slapping, burning.”

Reported abuse in Australia

Mr Turnbull responded, in a letter of 24 July 2017, to Women With Disabilities Australia executive director Carolyn Frohmader, saying: “I raised the issue of disability abuse at the Council of Australian Governments meeting on 9 June 2017. COAG asked the Disability Reform Council to consider the treatment of people with disability in residential settings and report back to COAG at its next meeting.”

I asked the Prime Minister what the DRC reported back. His spokesman, Hayden Cooper, said to me: “The DRC reported back to COAG in its annual report in around February this year however this report isn’t released publicly”.

Asked if the report would be released, Mr Cooper did not respond.

In May this year, Labor leader Bill Shorten reiterated calls for a Royal Commission.

“Labor will not allow countless sickening incidents of abuse against people with disability to be ignored,” Mr Shorten said.

The Senate inquiry also recommended:

  • Establishment of an independent, statutory, national protection mechanism that has broad functions and powers to protect, investigate and enforce findings in relation to violence, abuse and neglect of people with disability, including investigating systematic issues
  • National workforce and workplace regulation to address systemic workforce and workplace issues that increase the prevalence of violence, abuse and neglect, in close collaboration with or as part of the new national watchdog organisation
  • Access to justice for people with disability to ensure a ‘just’ approach to justice in all jurisdictions.

There are 4.3 million Australians with disability.

Assistant Minister for Social Services and Disability Services Jane Prentice recently told a United Nations reception in New York: “As many of you know, Australia was one of the original state signatories to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

“We are committed to ensuring the rights of these citizens are protected.”

The national hotline number is 1800 880 052.

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