Disability royal commission hears allegations of abuse at NDIS accommodation provider

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Posted 1 week ago by Jesse Neill

 Sunnyfield Disability Services CEO Caroline Cuddihy fronted the disability royal commission over three days last week. [Source: Disability Royal Commission]
Sunnyfield Disability Services CEO Caroline Cuddihy fronted the disability royal commission over three days last week. [Source: Disability Royal Commission]

The Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability (Disability Royal Commission) last week turned its focus to National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) service providers, hearing allegations of abuse and mistreatment that occurred in a Sydney group home.

The following story contains descriptions of physical abuse

The Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability (Disability Royal Commission) last week turned its focus to National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) service providers, hearing allegations of abuse and mistreatment that occured in a Sydney group home.

The inquiry focussed on a shared accommodation case study, featuring  non-government disability service provider, Sunnyfield. 

The Commission heard the experiences of Melissa, Carl and Chen*, three residents of the purpose-built home who were involved in separate incidents with two support workers (known as SP1 and SP2). 

Chen’s family reported unexplained bruising on his thigh around July 2018, while Sunnyfield allegedly attempted to evict Melissa after her legal guardian and sister, Eliza*, made several complaints about Sunnyfield staff conduct. 

Eliza was a witness at the Royal Commission and provided evidence of the mistreatment of her sister.  

The inquiry heard that Eliza became concerned from mid-2017 about incidents at the shared home, including Melissa breaking her finger, bruising that appeared around her eye, and a head injury.

Eliza made multiple complaints to Sunnyfield and to other agencies, including the New South Wales (NSW) Ombudsman, and told the Commission the group home had a "culture of blame".

"You couldn't raise an issue without someone being offended," says Eliza.

Eliza also told the inquiry that she went to 13 disability providers to find an alternative home for Melissa, but there was nothing suitable as she required a locked kitchen.

Sunnyfield and Eliza went through a process of mediation and Melissa remains at the group home.

Complaints and concerns dismissed in “culture of cover-ups”

Carl’s mother Sophia* also provided evidence and told the hearing about two incidents where her son was injured, one where he needed hospital treatment after his eye was split open and another where he returned from an outing bleeding. 

"I can only imagine how Carl would have felt in those moments when any of this was happening, when there's no mum and dad, no-one else in sight to see what's happening and who he can call out to," Sophia says.

Sophia lodged a formal complaint and police charged the two support workers. 

SP1 faced charges in relation to incidents involving Carl and Chen that included common assault and stalking/intimidation. 

He was later charged with assault occasioning actual bodily harm for allegedly kicking Chen.

SP2 also faced charges of assault against the residents, including a charge following a staff complaint to the watchdog. 

However, all charges to both SP1 and SP2 were dismissed by a magistrate in court due to a lack of evidence. 

The two support workers were then later dismissed by Sunnyfield in late 2019 and early 2020. 

Despite the two support workers being dismissed, Sophia told the inquiry she still didn't feel Carl was safe in the home.

"It's a culture of cover-up, I'm sorry to say, because we get told stories that are smoothed over so we don't react as badly," Sophia says.

"I think we don't really know the truth, and that's the thing that concerns me."

Sunnyfield home described as “dysfunctional”, “distrustful” and “divisive”

An independent investigator, Jennie Piaud, was appointed by Sunnyfield to examine the complaints made against the home in 2019. 

Ms Piaud told the Commission the house was in “crisis” and labelled the culture as “distrustful and divisive”. 

"This would have to be one of the more dysfunctional workplaces," Ms Piaud says.

The disability support provider has acknowledged at the Commission that it failed to protect the three residents. 

A report by Sunnyfield’s Chief Executive, Caroline Cuddihy, outlined the pattern of behaviour by the two support workers which included“staff bullying, racism, intimidation, deceit, absconding from duties, not adhering to client schedules, [a] cover-up, condonement of laziness [and] falsifying records".

Ms Cuddihy acknowledged that Sunnyfield failed to protect the three residents and accepted responsibility for the violence and abuse they suffered. 

She also admitted she had not met with the families of the residents and had not apologised to them prior to her evidence at the Royal Commission.

When questioned about Sunnyfield’s employment process and the hiring of one of the support workers, Ms Cuddihy described him as a “con artist”. 

“We deeply regret employing him and deeply regret his actions," Ms Cuddihy says.

"I do wish to express my regret and deep sympathy for the pain and distress suffered as a consequence of the events."

The public hearing was the first of several Royal Commission hearings looking into how disability service providers prevent and respond to violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation.   

The next Royal Commission hearing will begin on June 7 in Adelaide.

The hearing will focus on evidence pertaining to two particular case studies that detail the recent experiences of people with disability using supported accommodation services provided by the South Australian Department of Human Services. 

The Royal Commission will also look into what has been learned since the death of Adelaide woman with disability, Ann-Marie Smith, to help protect other people with disability. 

*Witnesses names have been altered