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House of Horrors in Victoria

Disabled were abused in house of horrors
 and governments covered it up (Link)

By Richard Baker and Nick McKenzie, The Age - April 11, 2015

Whistleblower reveals abuses in state-run care

Julie Sullivan knew something was wrong as soon as she began working at a Community Residential Unit on the Mornington Peninsula in 1989.

It took a month of unexplained bruising appearing on the body of Chloe Castello* before anyone began to question what was happening inside the big brown-brick house on the Mornington Peninsula.

Castello herself could not tell her story. So severely intellectually disabled she could not speak, she was fully dependent on the care provided by the Victorian Department of Human Services.

But the physical evidence was shocking. At first, the bruises appeared on the young woman's chest, forearm and upper thigh. Then her right eye was suddenly black and swollen. After that, she was found by carers with a bruised knee and cuts to her legs.

Julie Sullivan is speaking out about her role in first raising abuse in Victorian government disabled houses 25 years ago and her subsequent treatment. Photo by Penny Stephens.

Julie Sullivan is speaking out about her role in first raising abuse in Victorian government disabled houses 25 years ago and her subsequent treatment. Photo by Penny Stephens. Photo: Penny Stephens

None of these injuries were entered into official incident reports as required by law.

But on January 2, 1995, almost four weeks after the dark blue welts first appeared, house staff called the police to come to where Castello and several other severely disabled young adults lived.

This was not only because it was clear Castello had been seriously assaulted. Some staff had now come to believe she had also been raped. In the words of one of her carers, she was "black and blue" and both sides of her groin were a "purple-yellow colour".

Vanessa Leahy lived at the Mornington Peninsula home for the disabled in 1989. Victoria's first public advocate ordered a visit to the house after concerns were raised by Vanessa's family. The family supplied this picture of Vanessa and consented to her real name being used for this story.

Vanessa Leahy lived at the Mornington Peninsula home for the disabled in 1989. Victoria's first public advocate ordered a visit to the house after concerns were raised by Vanessa's family. The family supplied this picture of Vanessa and consented to her real name being used for this story. Photo: supplied

Ultimately, a young male carer was charged with her assault and resigned. Soon, others in the house began to talk about other serious incidents and cases of mistreatment. And for a short while, it looked like the terrible secrets of the house would be exposed and dealt with.

But then things went quiet. The wheels of the self-protecting Victorian bureaucracy were turning, making sure that the complete story of the shameful treatment of the Mornington Peninsula residents would stay hidden.

And so it stayed for 20 years. It is only now, thanks to a whistleblower prompted by a series of recently revelations about the abuse of disabled Australians in care, that the full story is finally being told.

For most of the victims, it's too late. They have died due to their life-limiting disabilities. But their stories need to be aired. Not only in the interest of long overdue public accountability and justice but because the factors that contributed to their mistreatment remain a feature in many contemporary cases where disabled Australians have been abused: powerless victims; secrecy; fear; institutional incompetence and the official persecution of whistleblowers.

These factors  were all present in the Yooralla case, where stories from recent years of rapes and assaults have prompted a major Ombudsman's inquiry along with a state and federal parliamentary probe into why so many disabled Australians are being abused by those supposed to care for them.

Prompted by the emergence of these cases, the whistleblower in the Mornington Pensinsula case, who has amassed hundreds of pages of confidential government documents and waged a 20-year battle for justice, has now come forward to tell her own story.

When Julie Sullivan, a former carer at the Mornington Peninsula house first heard what had happened to Castello, she felt sick. She had worked at the house six years earlier, in the late 1980s, and had raised the alarm then about the treatment of its residents. 

Sullivan still vividly recalls the day in 1989 when a man and a woman arrived at the Mornington Peninsula house armed with a list of questions. The pair were known as "community visitors", and were representatives of a new statutory authority, the Office of the Public Advocate, which had been established to ensure the rights of Victoria's disabled and vulnerable were being upheld.

They had come because Victoria's first Public Advocate, the late Ben Bodna, had received concerning information from the mother of a resident called Vanessa Leahy.

They asked Sullivan if she could answer some questions, and she opened up about what she had seen – the "whacking" of a male resident, the use of a coarse scrubbing brush on another resident's face for punishment and of people being "tied to the toilet" for long periods. Sullivan also told graphic details of seeing a senior staff member insert soap into the anus of a resident.

The OPA, which recently led the call for an inquiry into the abuse of disabled Australians, was also told by Sullivan back then of a culture of cover-ups at the house, and they found evidence of alleged falsification of incident reports and financial wrongdoing.

The OPA reported its findings to the then Cain Labor government's community services minister, Peter Spyker. In a confidential August 1989 briefing, a senior department of community services official wrote: "Allegations are most serious … and could involve criminal charges being laid".

The house supervisor was re-deployed and a panel of inquiry formed, featuring senior public servants and an OPA observer. The panel substantiated the most explosive allegations, including the unlawful use of restraints and soap suppositories, and expressed "very serious concerns over programs and potential risk for residents".

Yet it failed to interview everyone connected with the house and quickly began laying a bureaucratic dead-hand over events, telling Spyker that no staff had been negligent and only "programmatic issues" had been identified.

Leaked files include one memo written by a public servant who seems more concerned with bad publicity than the bad treatment of residents: "Recommendations of the panel are designed to ensure that initiatives are already being undertaken to minimise any adverse comment and present a positive response to the matter".

Senior bureaucrats also moved to silence the Office of the Public Advocate, with the panel of inquiry advising ministers that: "The role of the Community Visitors in this matter is of grave concern in as much as they have clearly moved into areas in which they appear to have no jurisdiction nor should they seek to have jurisdiction".

By contrast, no staff at the home were disciplined. The house supervisor was later reinstated and returned to work at the house – where she hired lawyers and began attacking her accusers, including Sullivan.

Sullivan, who had a promising career as a Victorian government carer when she felt compelled to blow the whistle, was left feeling confused and threatened. She was subsequently moved from job to job within the department.

Months later, in June 1990, the then Ombudsman Norman Geshke wrote to the director-general of the Community Services department to ask why staff had not been disciplined, but still there was no action. The community services department's then regional director, Mick Ellis, simply drafted a letter for his minister, Kay Setches, saying that the situation at the house was under control, and the minister signed it. Ellis did not return calls from Fairfax Media.

But Sullivan and a handful of others would not give up. For six more years, they tried unsuccessfully to raise the plight of the five residents of the Mornington Peninsula house, who had no voice of their own. In that period two people died there. A doctor, who was described in departmental documents as the residents' GP said later that he did not see the residents for years.

It was only when Chloe Castello was assaulted over a month in 1994 that the authorities deemed the house and those living in it worthy of another look.

In December that year, Nancy Johnson, a veteran carer at the Mornington Peninsula house noticed Castello seemed exhausted after each time she'd been in the care of a 20-year-old male house employee.

Johnson became further alarmed when she found the young male carer, who has not been identified for legal reasons, in the young disabled woman's bedroom while she was being undressed.

"I had to tell him on a number of occasions to leave her room. There was no need for him to be in her room," Johnson said in a later signed witness statement.

The young man had begun work at the house months earlier. It was his first real job. He had a hearing problem and, according to fellow staff, enjoyed patrolling the corridors with his big, black, military-style torch and heavy ring of keys.

He "enjoyed" his "power," Johnson noted.

But Johnson did not file an incident report at the time, saying later that her supervisor, who Fairfax Media has not named for legal reasons, had instructed staff to formally report abuse only if they actually witnessed it. Instead, Johnson noted the injuries in a day book kept at the house.

"Chloe has a lot of very bad bruises on her right chest and the back of her left arm, also on her left thigh. They seem very deep bruises," she wrote at the time.

Another staff member, Carmel Quirk, also noticed the bruises. But Quirk was fearful of recording this in official records after the house supervisor warned her that "it makes me look bad". Instead Quirk made meticulous private notes which were later provided to investigators. A note from early January 1995 described Castello having a "black left eye, cut on cheek bone, face swollen, left side badly bruised".

Finally, on January 2, the evidence could no longer be ignored. It seemed to staff that Castello had been not only beaten, but possibly raped, evidenced by deep bruising on both sides of her groin. Later that day, management notified local detectives, but it was another 24 hours at least –almost 48 hours after the attack – before the department organised for the woman to be forensically examined, making the proof of  any sexual assault difficult.

Police charged the young hard-of-hearing male carer with unlawful assault and recklessly and intentionally causing injury. Court records do not reveal whether he was convicted but he  resigned from his job before he could be sacked.

But the man-made allegations of his own, telling government investigators that he had seen other staff abuse residents, including a senior female staff member who allegedly slapped and manhandled residents while verbally denigrating them.

"You f------ idiot. Eat your tea, you bastard," was what he claimed the female staffer had said to a resident. The male carer's allegations were backed up by a second carer, who claimed in 1995 to have previously seen the same senior female staff member force feeding a resident to the point of choking.

Carer Julie Sullivan was shocked but not surprised when she learned of the 1995 inquiry.

On January 17, 1995, investigators published their report, which found "the standard of the client files was appalling", and said they could not locate any incident reports. The local GP told investigators he had not completed full medical examinations of any of the five residents at the Mornington Peninsula house.

Carer Nancy Johnson told investigators: "The clients don't go to the doctor … I don't think they ever have an annual check-up."

When medical checks were finally implemented, a female resident was found to have constipation so chronic that it had led to serious medical problems.

In August 1995, some eight months after the bruises were first noted on Castello's body, and six years after the first complaints were lodged about the house, the long-standing supervisor of the Mornington Peninsula house was hit with 23 disciplinary charges. She did a plea bargain and accepted guilt for eight charges, including failure to maintain client files, failure to submit incident reports, failure to get medical assessment of clients and the submission of false and misleading receipts. She resigned, going on to work in the private aged-care sector.

 But the cover-up continued. There was no public reporting, or broader accountability. As a result, there were no calls for reform, nor inquiries of the type that would occur nearly two decades later, when abuse scandals in other Victorian homes for the disabled were revealed in the media.

"All the agencies charged with the care and protection of our most vulnerable failed in this case," Sullivan says.

Much has changed in 20 years. The Mornington Peninsula house remains a group home, but is now run very well – which is why Fairfax Media has chosen not to name it. There are stronger policies about reporting abuse in such situations. Police have improved the way they handle sexual abuse allegations. Disabled Australians are being listened to more than they were in the past.

But much has also stayed the same. In 2012, Fairfax Media received a leaked report showing the Department of Human Services had 112 cases of serious alleged "staff to client abuse". The department's response to the leak was indicative of the treatment of whistleblowers. Instead of fixing the problem, it hired – at great expense to taxpayers – forensic investigators to trace the source of the leak.

When Fairfax Media last year tried to obtain up-to-date data on alleged staff to client abuse, the department refused to release a single document under the Freedom of Information Act. It said to do so would be "contrary to the public interest" because it could "mislead the public and lead to ill-informed debate".

For Sullivan, such responses cause her to doubt just how much things have really changed. She intends to make a detailed submission about her experiences to the federal Senate's inquiry into the abuse of the disabled.

She realises the revelation of what really went on at the Mornington Peninsula house could be painful for relatives of the residents, who may still be unaware of the extent of the mistreatment.

But Sullivan hopes they understand why she is speaking out.

"Please know that there were staff at that house who loved your loved ones very much and tried so hard."

*Name has been changed.

Extra 1:  DHS - at it again!  
"Cover-up, In-denial, Avoidance" - being their standard management practice protected by the OPA, the ODSC, the Ombudsman, VEOHRC, VCAT, the Heath Services Commission, Victorian Public Sector Commission, Government Ministers, etc, etc.

Extra 2:  Government Funded Hypocrisy
Governments fund services, as well as funding advocates to keep service providers honest. Then protects service providers against consumer, advocate and public scrutiny”.

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