A South Australian family have told the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability (Disability Royal Commission) they were sent an anonymous letter threatening abuse against their nephew, who lives with an intellectual disability.
The Disability Royal Commission is continuing to look into how disability service providers prevent and respond to violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation as part of a week-long hearing in Adelaide.
The hearing is focussing on evidence pertaining to two particular case studies that detail the experiences of people with disability in segregated congregate living situations (also called group homes) operated by the South Australian Department of Human Services.
As part of the hearings, the commission was told on Monday that South Australian authorities failed to investigate the threats against Mitchell*, who is 38 years old and lives with an intellectual disability. Mitchell has been living in one of several adjoining units run by the Department for Human Services since 2016.
Senior Counsel Assisting the Royal Commission Kate Eastman SC, told the hearing that during the first few months of Mitchell living at the residence, his uncle and aunty, James and Victoria*, raised concerns about the level of care Mitchell was receiving.
"In 2017, Victoria raised some of her concerns and her perception based on the way in which her concerns were responded to was that she felt she might be targeted in relation to allegations made about her and they may have been designed to discredit her reputation," Ms Eastman says.
"But Victoria and James put Mitchell at the forefront of their concerns and they agreed with new communication strategies to improve the flow of communication, including fortnightly meetings."
On March 3, 2018, Ms Eastman says Victoria discovered an anonymous letter in her letterbox.
"It is deeply distressing but in summary, the letter contains threats to Mitchell's life, his safety and wellbeing," Ms Eastman says.
"Victoria and James were shocked and horrified."
The letter, which Victoria read to the commission, mentioned that the site manager of the facility had been moved and claimed staff were opposed to her departure, meaning they were “angry and pissed off, which now puts your nephew at risk”.
James and Victoria took immediate action and raised the letter with the department and filed a report with the police.
"Obviously, you know, we were just completely shocked with what had happened... our whole family was," she said.
"We all agreed that none of us felt that it was his core team of support workers that would do such a thing.
"Because of that, we had some time that we could actually stay calm, work through this, while investigations were taking place to remove this hugely toxic element from around any disabled person." The inquiry heard the author of the letter was never identified. In the years that followed, an ombudsman's investigation concluded that the department failed to properly investigate the letter.
Death of NDIS participant to be investigated later this week
The Disability Royal Commission will also hear evidence regarding the death of Ann-Marie Smith, an NDIS participant who died in April last year after being neglected in her home by her support worker.
Ms Smith is reported to have been left, for an extended period of time, in a chair before passing away from a combination of septic shock and organ failure caused by malnutrition.
The Royal Commission is investigating what changes have been made by the South Australian and Commonwealth Governments since the incident, to safeguard people with disability from violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation.
Disability rights and advocacy organisation People with Disability Australia (PWDA) President, Samantha Connor, is pleased to see that the Royal Commission is investigating South Australian disability accommodation services.
“For many years, violence and abuse against disabled people has been perpetrated behind closed doors, in segregated environments… often due to a lack of adequate services and supports,” Ms Connor says.
She also emphasised the importance of ending segregated housing arrangements for people with disability, in line with Australia’s human rights obligations.
In its submission to the Disability Royal Commission on quality and safeguards, PWDA has also urged the Royal Commission to examine whether complaints bodies, such as the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission, are treating cases of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation in group homes as regulatory breaches, rather than criminal matters which should be referred to police.
PWDA Chief Executive Officer, Sebastian Zagarella, expressed concern that incidents of violence in group homes are not being dealt with appropriately.
“We see situations where providers are simply being issued with fines, while the perpetrators of violence and abuse are moved on from the service without further repercussion,” Mr Zagarella says.
PWDA has advocated for the establishment of an independent national body to oversee safeguarding and complaints mechanisms in disability services.
“Right now, we have different State and Territory governments applying their own safeguarding systems to a national NDIS, and we have a woefully under-resourced NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission, who also have no power to address incidents if service providers are not NDIS registered,” Mr Zagarella says.
“The system is complicated, and people with disability – people like Ann-Marie Smith – can end up slipping through the cracks, with tragic and horrifying consequences.”
*Witnesses names have been altered