The last three days of the Royal Commission into the Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability, heard from advocacy organisations about group homes, a case study around sexual abuse in a group home, and a panel suggesting alternatives to group homes.
Many of the witnesses explained the difficulty of living within group homes and the lack of freedom and independence they had as individuals.
On the third day of the Royal Commission, Alan Robertson attended the Commission to provide his personal experience living in institutions and group homes where he was subject to physical and verbal abuse from carers, but now lives with more independence in his own home.
He says it is incredibly important for himself to live within and be connected to his surrounding community.
Mr Robertson is also an advocate for other people with disability and travels around the country and the world to talk to people with disability about their journey.
Accompanying Mr Robertson on the stand was Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Victorian Advocacy League for Individuals with Disability (VALID), Kevin Stone, who explained the company’s difficulty coping with demand for their advocacy services.
“We’ve been doing this for 30 years. We’ve been saying these things for 30 years. I can’t tell you how pleased and relieved we are to see a Royal Commission. We called for a Royal Commission back in 2012 out of despair,” says Mr Stone.
“From the very beginning, the number one issue for VALID – or two number one issues. One was housing, the lack of housing options for people, forcing people to be incarcerated, institutionalised.
“And the other major issue is abuse, exploitation, neglect. And you don’t have to be Einstein to realise those two issues are inextricably linked. They go hand in hand.”
Mr Stone says 25 percent of their individual advocacy cases involve people living in group homes, and 25 percent of those cases involve client to client abuse. Another 30 percent of VALID’s clients are involving staff to client abuse.
He says the client to client abuse is a direct result of “herding people together against their will without choice, without compatibility, in compressed situations”.
Mr Stone adds that group homes weren’t meant to be an end point in housing, they were intended to teach people how to become independent and would move onto their own places after developing skills.
“But I guess what we have found in many houses, certainly not all, but in many houses, they have become just the end of the road. And that’s largely because houses and often staff and services have lost the art of actually equipping people with those skills,” says Mr Stone.
“And concepts like active support and person centred planning, encouraging and teaching people how to, you know, live for themselves. Instead, what we see, many services have become containment services, have become just as much an institution as previously.”
Poor support after abuse
On the fourth day, the Royal Commission heard a case study around serious sexual assault at the group home, Yooralla, in Victoria, between 2011-2014.
Over a number of years, several residents were abused by specific staff members at one of the facilities.
CEO of Yooralla, Dr Sheren Devanesen, ended up admitting that only one of the survivors of abuse from a Yooralla staff member received criminal compensation and the other victims did not receive help from Yooralla to seek legal options or advice around criminal compensation.
The Commissioners and Counsel took issue with the terminology and language in Dr Devanesen’s statement about the sexual assaults. Dr Devanesen couldn’t provide the reasoning behind the language she used, but said she didn’t intend to downplay the seriousness of what occurred.
Counsel Assisting were also concerned with how long it took for the company to provide apologies or supports to the victims.
“It’s taken a long time to gradually regain the trust of the survivors of this abuse. Very early in the piece, when I was appointed as the CEO of the organisation, I requested to meet with the survivors of abuse and to speak with them, and many of them are not prepared to do so,” says Dr Devanesen.
“They said they didn’t trust the management and the organisation and were not prepared to do so. And it has taken this long, and over a gradual process of providing stable staff that they trust…
“It’s not that easy to do it in a quick space of time.”
One staff member who was sexually assaulted while at the facility received WorkCover Compensation rather than victim compensation from the company, which seemed to shock the Commissioners, along with the fact the staff member received more compensation money than the residents at Yooralla.
Dr Devanesen provided an apology statement to the Commission on behalf of the organisation.
"On behalf of Yooralla, I deeply regret the abuse to people with a disability. I acknowledge that the pain and trauma continues to affect the lives for the survivors, their families and their carers,” says Dr Devanesen.
“We’re grateful to those who exposed the abuse, and we’re very sorry for the events that took place.
“Yooralla has undertaken a program of reform and change and, as we continue this journey, it is our hope that we will build trusting partnerships with people with disability. We are committed to our vision of a world where people with disability are equal citizens.”
Dr Devanesen says Yooralla would compensate the victims for the crimes committed against them.
Better housing options
On the final day of the Royal Commission, a panel was held to discuss alternative options for group homes and alternative ways of addressing the accommodation concerns.
On the panel were Belinda Ruth Epstein-Frisch, a disability advocate and consultant and currently a consultant to the Independent Advisory Council of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS); Leanne Pearman, co-chief executive of the Western Australian Individualised Services; and Lisa Hamilton, a research fellow at the School of Social Sciences at the University of Queensland.
Dr Hamilton actively lived within a group home to get proper research about what life is like in group homes. For an 18 month period, she lived at a group home to write a thesis called “Within These Walls” which aims to explore and understand how people with intellectual disability experience life in a group home setting.
Dr Hamilton says she hopes the Commission thinks hard about what home means for people and for people with severe or profound intellectual disability, who need support but should be active in home-making.
“So really challenging that notion that group homes which are segregated models where people are congregated together on the basis of their disability, and the way that we think about group homes as a service model is really the antithesis of what home is,” says Dr Hamilton.
Ms Epstein-Friesch says she would like to see more positive relationships for people with disability since they are integral to an enjoyable quality of life.
“It’s being in relationship with people who care about us, not who care for us. But many, many people with disability, for them friends and connection with other people doesn’t come easily,” says Ms Epstein-Friesch.
“And what we need is very intentional strategies that help bring others into the lives of people with disability. The NDIS absolutely requires it if the NDIS is going to be sustainable.
“It means that they’re really relying on people being supported by a combination of paid support complementing the informal support, because we have to be very careful that paid support does not drive out freely given relationships but rather complements that which family, friends and connection with community can provide.”
Ms Epstein-Friesch also drew attention to the separation of housing and support, which she believes is pivotal in establishing better options for people with disability.
Similar to both Ms Epstein-Friesch and Dr Hamilton’s own opinions, Ms Pearman agrees that people with disability need to be able to design how they want to live and be seen as a genuine human with rights and citizenship.
“It’s easy to talk about service supports, everything that’s within service land, different models, the way in which people are engaged and supported,” says Ms Pearman.
“So I think getting back to what does life look like for any of us, and how are we supported if we need support to exercise our rights as citizens in our community, and what does that look like and how do we measure against that.
“I think it’s a really important thing to note that relationships can’t be manufactured. We can’t just make people connect with other people but we can create environments that will facilitate more than that.
“And one of the things that we’ve seen is because relationships keep us all safe. If we’ve got people looking out for us, loving us, caring about us, knowing where we are, knowing what we’re doing, checking in, it doesn’t matter whether we have a disability or not, it’s what all of those relationships help keep us safe.”
With the closure of this third round of hearings, it is expected that the next set of Disability Royal Commission hearings will take place in February next year in Western Sydney.